Out on the water


Maine Lobster Lookback: 2013

Taken from the shore at SeaCat’s Rest

The numbers are in. Maine lobster fishers pulled in 125,953,876 pounds in 2013, just one percent under the 2012 total of 127.2 million pounds. No one asked me how much I, as a recreational five trap guy caught, so that number is shy of the real total. Perhaps someone guesstimates the recreational landings. Once again, these landings numbers blow away the notion that a hundred million pounds is a fluke or an unsustainable harvest. I do strongly suspect however, that Maine lobster fishing is more like free range ranching than fishing from the wild, since the catch depends on 200,000,000+ pounds of bait in our traps. Due to informed practices such as strict size limits and the marking and release of egg-bearing females, most lobster end up getting a free meal rather than ending up on dinner plates. Compare this number with the average harvest in most of the middle of the 20th century, twenty million pounds!

happy haul

Isn’t it funny though, that we seem so ready for bad news that when good news comes along we are totally unprepared? Such is the case for the lobster market: an oversupply of perishable soft shell lobsters depresses the prices to the point that fishing is now a very thin-margin business. For four years in the mid 2000s the boat price for lobsters was over $4/ lb, while diesel was from $2-$3/gallon. Now the prices are reversed: fuel tops $4 and the average price in 2013 paid at the dock was $2.89. This is an improvement over 2012, which was $2.69. In 2012 they were making jokes about lobster being cheaper than bologna. So even though the landings number is 1% less, the increase in price resulted in an extra $23 million to the fishers, in 2013.

This price increase over 2012 seems to be purely accidental, perhaps due to the improving economy. There is sentiment to face this good-news landings situation with a little planning. In other words, what can we do to improve the price situation for Maine’s lobster fishers so that they can afford to fish? One answer could be the new Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. Expect to see big bucks spent on promoting Maine lobster in the years ahead. One of the problems is that “Maine lobster” is often used as a generic term for the North American Lobster, Homarus americanus, so we have chain restaurants promoting their “Maine lobsters” from Nova Scotia, etc. (Please don’t write me about how good lobsters from Canada are, I’m not saying they’re not). The new collaborative aims to certify lobsters from Maine so that the public is aware of where their crustacean are from, and reclaim the “Maine lobster” label.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative takes over from Maine Lobster Promotion Council with a bigger budget and more state government involvement. Their slick new website, http://www.lobsterfrommaine.com, has history, info on sustainability, recipes and lots of links to dealers. What it lacks for now are decent videos…I tried to embed one below and all I found were tiny-window versions. Go here to see what I mean.

Another problem is the glut of soft shell lobster in the summer months. They don’t travel well, so we have to eat them here or keep them in pounds until their shells toughen up. However, the vast majority of the catch is processed so that it is available everywhere, year ’round, as frozen meat. Most processing factories are in Canada, but this is changing. In 2012 a shipment of Maine lobsters was stopped at the border by angry Canadian fishers, who saw our cheap prices as undercutting their hard work. The move to establish more Maine processors has accelerated since. At only 10% of the total, Maine lobster processing has room to grow. Time will tell if it will result in higher prices.

I have a feeling that due to our unusually cold winter of 2013/2014 we may see lower landings numbers for 2014. That will raise prices, but will also start the usual chorus of crash prediction, which may undo the new investments. Tune back in a year to see if I’m right!


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Funny Maine Place Names

Here it is, just a few weeks before the darkest day of the year (and only six more months of winter) and not much is happening on the coast of Maine. I like to occupy my spare time with genealogical research when I can’t get outside for reasons of nasty weather.  I just discovered that one of my ancestral lines came from Butcombe, Somerset, UK and that had me in stitches for a while. There’s even a Butcombe brewery. No wonder people left England! Then I started thinking, are there places as funny in Maine?

from http://mainecrimewriters.com/kaitlyns-posts/you-pronounce-it-how

Most newcomers quickly catch onto the tendency of Maine towns to be named for someplace far away. Here’s a photo of one famous road sign. Missing from this photo are Calais (pronounced “callous”), Madrid (MAD-rid)  and Belfast. Does this tendency reflect Mainers’ need to escape to some exotic corner of the world, or is it a leftover from when Maine’s primary focus was shipbuilding and trade? Beats me!

But we were talking about funny place names, and for that we need a little help from Native Americans. Here are a few:

Passagassawakeag River
Piscataqua River
Chemquasabamticook Lake

Then there’s Garrison Keillor’s (A Prairie Home Companion) fictitious Maine town, Piscataquaddymoggin, not all that far from the realm of possibility. Mooselookmeguntic, in addition to being fun to say, has, at 17 letters, the distinction of being tied for first place with Kleinfeltersville, PA as the longest single-word, unhyphenated place name in the United States recognized by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Piscataquaddymoggin would be even longer as is Chemquasabamticook. Someone should inform the Board.

Still, it would seem that Mainers were fairly sober when concocting place names. There was probably no attempt at humor even with Meddybemps, though we giggle about it today. There are many place names which show lack of imagination. Someone would name a town Liberty, the next community over would be Freedom, then came Union, Unity and Hope. Crossroads in between would grow into communities named East Union, South Hope and so on. Boring!

Only when naming islands would Mainers allow their funny side out. You need a chart of the Gulf of Maine to find more lighthearted names: Bartender, Birthday, Blubber, Bombazine, Brown Cow, Bumpkin, Burnt Porcupine, Cat-Sized, Chain Link, Crotch (7 of them!), Crumple, Cubby Hole, Dog’s Head, Double Shot (5 of those!), Dumplings, Featherbed, French House, Gallows, Gay’s, Georges Head, Grog, Hamloaf, Hardhead, Hell’s Half Acre, Hen Cackle, High Sheriff, Hungry, Hypocrites Ledges, Ile D’amour, Irony, Junk Of Pork, Kemps Folly, Lazy Gut, Mistake, Nightcap, No Man’s Land, Old Soaker, Pollypod, Pound Of Tea, Powder Hole, Scabby, Scotch, Screeching Gull, Shivers, Smuttynose, Sow and Pigs, Suicide, Tea Kettle, The Downfall, Thomas Little Toes, Toothacher, Tumbledown Dick and Virgin’s Breast. These are all among the 3166 Maine coastal islands, and I only wish the fishermen who named them had had a chance to name some towns. I wouldn’t want to live in one though, it would make for some awkward high school fight songs.

The UK still takes the cake for funny and rude place names. Butcombe is a mild example and doesn’t even make the list. Just try to get a pizza delivered to Crapstone, Devonshire. Read about it here.

Old Soaker can be seen from Sand Beach in Acadia National Park


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Electric Boat Range Revisited

The panels arrive from China

About a year ago I laid out the range situation for my electric lobster boat Eleccentricity. I speculated about what the range would be if I added solar panels, and in other posts I wondered what speed I could attain under sunlight alone. Now I have added 480 watts of panels and can now update the speculation with hard data. I made this test today, the 25th of August, 2013. Not exactly the height of mid-summer solar radiation, but good for averaging over the boating season. First, the sunlight-only question. This was funny because I noticed that I could get an extra 36 watts or so by orienting my boat’s roof toward the sparkling water (i.e., the sun), where the headwind was unfortunately, strongest. With the motor off I could see 10.2 amps coming from the panels. Since the system voltage at the time was about 38 volts this works out to 388 watts. Not too near the rated 480 watts, but what I didn’t know at the time was that there were two blobs of gull poop on the panels, and rated wattage is just an ideal anyway. Now the speed test. I plugged in my car’s GPS and waited while it found satellites. Then I headed into the sun and wind to measure the speed while adjusting the throttle so that my amps were zero (inflow equaled outflow). I tried this in several directions and ended up with an average of 3.5 MPH.  Imagine, moving a 1000 pound boat through the water at a slow jogging speed on sunlight alone! I expect I could hit 4 MPH at the summer solstice at midday, with calm wind but I’m pretty happy with this. I increased the speed to 4 MPH and checked the ammeter: 2.2 amps, or 83 watts from the battery. So I could travel at 4 MPH for 7200 (my batteries’ capacity in watt hours)/83=86.75 hours for a range of 347 miles! Now, the clever reader will note that the sun will be not only weakening but also going down, so that 86.75 hours would be a fantasy, but it’s fun to do the math.

With the panels’ contribution I throttled up to 5 MPH using 16-20 amps or 608-760 watts, giving a range of 60-47 miles. At 6 MPH I was using 52-70 amps or 1872-2520 watts yielding 23 to 17 miles. All of these computations are of course subject to reductions due to wind, waves and clouds.

I would not want to drain my batteries down to zero. In fact, going down to 50% is about the lowest I would ever go because deeply draining batteries shortens their lives, so the above range numbers should be cut in half. However, the nice thing about going somewhere is that when you get there, you let the boat sit in the sun until you go back. There are no trees or buildings blocking the sun on the water! If you voyage two hours at 5 MPH and use 1300 watt hours, the charge percentage would be 1300/7200 = 18% , 100%-18%=82% in reserve. Let’s say you do something on shore for 2 hours. During that time you get 380 solar watts, so that’s 380*2=760 watt hours. 760/7200=10.5%. So when you shove off your state of charge is now 82% + 10.5%= 92.5%.  So you get home from your 20 mile round trip with 92.5%-18%=74.5%. Real numbers would be lower due to reduction in solar radiation over the six hour time, but this is the kind of planning a solar boat owner has to go through. This virtual trip brings up an important point, that a trip should be planned around the strongest sunlight (midday) for the greatest range. So that six hour trip left us with 74.5% at the end. If we wanted to be left with 50% instead, we could use an extra 24% (1728 watt hours, or 2.2 hours at 5 MPH with no solar help because the sun is weaker) This would add 2.2*5 MPH or 11 miles to our 20 mile trip, for a total of 31 miles.

No watts today!

Now the down side: Rain and clouds. It’s a day later and the sky is as dark as predawn. These panels use monocrystalline silicon cells and they’re supposedly the best, converting 18% of the sun’s energy to electricity. Will there be any watts flowing into my batteries at 8:30 AM on a very cloudy day?

No! What was I thinking? Still, I came back with six lobsters, so the trip was not wasted. The battery level started at 100%, so the sun did its job yesterday.

I think owning an electric boat will not require complex projections every time I want to make a trip. Eventually I will develop rules of thumb regarding the range question like, if it’s sunny I can make a 20 mile round trip at 5 MPH, no problem. It won’t be more complicated than figuring out where the next gas station is, and a lot cheaper. And the nice thing about a solar electric boat is that I can slow down or stop in the sun to extend my range, and best of all, it’s a zero-carbon trip.

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Lobster Fishing Goes Solar in Maine

My new photovoltaic panels on Eleccentricity’s roof, with Cadillac Mountain in the distance.

It’s been a few years since I hatched the wild idea of building an electric boat I could use for lobster fishing. Phase one was in 2011 and consisted of planning, building and powering up. Except for an initial problem of backward steering things went pretty well. That fall I was already preparing for phase 2, the roof. That would allow me to build in a boom for hauling lobster traps and the roof would serve as a platform for eventual photovoltaic panels. I was unsure if the boat would take kindly to the added weight aloft, but all went well. By summer of 2012 I was hauling traps and enjoying the shade and shelter of a roof. I also added reverse.

Controller and junction box. Cables poking through hole in roof.

Now it’s August of 2013 and I finally decided to bite the bullet and try to come up with a way to use the sun’s energy to allow me (more or less) unlimited range. I rejected conventional panels, which use heavy frames and glass, in favor of new ultra-thin plastic panels. These have only been available for a few years, and the marine version is incredibly expensive (of course!). If you want a panel made in Germany or Italy marketed to sailors it will cost you $900 for 70 watts, or nearly $13/ watt! This at a time when rooftop panels are closing in on $1/watt. Fortunately, the Chinese are making them too, and I was able to buy six 80 watt panels for $1.60/watt plus shipping from Hong Kong. I don’t know if these lightweight panels are going to last more than a few years, but I don’t have a lot of choices.

When you work with solar, you need to cover the panels to avoid shocking yourself!

I had a heckuva time arranging the right sized panels to my roof area and power requirements. I wanted 400 watts. I also needed a charge controller to safely get the solar power into the batteries. All these things made me give up several times. I’d find panels that worked but couldn’t match the voltage. I’d find a 36 volt controller but it wouldn’t do 15 amps. And on and on.  I learned a lot too, like you can’t mix different sized panels, and you need a panel output (VOC) of around 20 volts to charge a 12 volt battery. Finally it all fell together with help from Jason Huang at Sacred Solar, John Drake at solarseller.com and the folks at Solar Converters, Inc. The whole price tag was just under $1400, about $400 more than my limit, but I ended up with 480 watts. And now it’s done. After part of two days in tossing seas I completed the installation, and today I found out what it was like to cruise on sunlight alone.  The controller is taking the output from the panels, boosting up the voltage to a maximum of 44 volts and keeping my batteries happy and well fed. I left the boat with the battery bank at 92% and returned two hours later with it at 98%. That’s about 432 watt hours from a partly cloudy day, or 4 miles at 4 MPH. Now all I need to do is to figure out a way to keep the gulls from pooping on my panels.

I have no illusions that local commercial fishermen will see my set-up and immediately convert their roaring diesel lobster boats to solar, but it’s a start. I only have 5 traps and would not try to fish 150 traps with this solar boat. Still, the lobster boat of the future may indeed have a few features of Eleccentricity. Besides, I’m having fun. Oh, and when I reported earlier that I could check my traps for 2¢ worth of electricity, well now that’s 0¢, unless you factor in the $1400.

Quietly charging…..


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The Wreck of the Princes Mia?

This can’t be good…

Yesterday I did a double-take as I walked down my stairway to the shore. I was on my way to haul my lobster traps when I noticed a sailboat a mile away on the opposite shore. It was obviously aground, at a very unhealthy angle as the photo shows.

I thought I’d swing by after hauling traps with Eleccentricity but the wind picked up and I needed to use more power than normal, so I decided to save kilowatt hours and drive over instead. When I got there (Hadley Point public access) I saw pretty much what I expected, the owner painting the bottom with anti-fouling paint. In other words, the grounding was totally intentional and no aquatic mishap had occurred.

I began a conversation with the owner and immediately detected a Dutch accent. He told me that he was from Zeeland, in the south of the Netherlands and that his ship’s hull was steel. I walked around to the other side and checked out the steel edge visible on the deck weld. It looked thick, I guessed 5 mm. I asked him the thickness and he said 8 mm. I was amazed, this is in the battleship realm. My father’s steel sailboat was I believe, 1/8 inch. 8 mm translates to almost 3/8 inch! No wonder he let his 45 foot sailboat just flop over on its side. It’s indestructible!

The owner, whose name I didn’t ask, told me a bit about his life. His last boat was a little smaller, but he used it to cross the North Atlantic anyway, so he was no stranger to large scale cruising. He saw the Princes Mia for sale back in Holland and decided to buy it. In Holland, sailing craft are usually shallow draft, and so the very deep Princes Mia was a deal because no one wanted it. He is now able to fit all his tools and family in the cavernous hull for extended cruising, and the whale-collision proof hull ensures safely. He pointed out that a big hulled sailboat is not that much different than a smaller one to operate, so except for the extra amount of bottom paint required, not much had changed.

He related stories of his voyages, like about the native people in canoes in the mouth of the Orinoco in Venezuela, coming to trade with him. He said it was like going back 100 years. His next stop was the Dutch West Indies. He should reach there just as we start to get chilly.

Today, a day later, I looked again and saw that the ship was now on its other side. The seas were flat calm so I cruised over to take some more photos, this time from the water. The spectacle has gathered a bit of attention, plenty of cameras were snapping on shore. My guess is that our Dutchman was becoming a reluctant celebrity.

It’s nice to live on the coast of Maine and occasionally run into someone with a completely different, exotic and adventurous life. Hard to believe we could possibly seem that way to others, although sometimes our guests tell us so!


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Lamoine’s “Life of Pi” Connection

from http://screenrant.com/life-of-pi-movie-ending-spoilers/

Many of us have seen “Life of Pi”: an Indian kid is saved by luck while his parent’s ship goes down in a storm, only to end up sharing his lifeboat with a menagerie of zoo animals. One by one the animals are eaten or ejected, leaving Pi and an amazingly ferocious Bengal tiger. Soon they develop an uneasy coexistence and in the end (off the coast of Mexico) they both end their voyage very much alive. Dreamlike interludes and surreal but beautiful images suggest altered consciousness during the telling.

That’s the story we spend 95% of the movie viewing, but at the end Pi is forced to retell the story to investigators. In this version he is on the lifeboat as before, without animals, but forced to watch his mother killed by the ship’s cook and finally ends up killing the cook himself. The viewer is asked to wonder if the animal characters were stand-ins for the humans in the second version. We had to choose the more likely version and also to answer questions about the existence of God/faith as a side issue to which version we choose.

Despite the confusing ending the cinematography and special effects are dazzling, since the tiger is entirely computer generated. Claymation it ain’t. What does this have to do with our neck of the woods here in Lamoine, Maine?

Our own Steven Callahan was a consultant for this movie, his credentials are why. Steven spent 76 days in an inflatable life raft adrift in the North Atlantic 30 years ago after a probable whale collision sank his boat. He knows about catching and eating raw fish, dealing with storms and keeping his wits. In 2002 he wrote a book about it called Adrift, Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, a New York Times best seller.

Newspaper photo after Callahan’s rescue in 1982

Steven lives on the east side of Lamoine, near the Skillings river and is a Naval architect. The author of Life of Pi, Yann Martel and the film director Ang Lee, who would soon begin shooting the film of the same name, paid Callahan a visit in 2009. They went sailing, spent some time picking his brain and returned to Taiwan to start shooting. But before long they invited him to help with the movie. Steve flew to Taiwan in 2010 and expected to sit in the back and answer a few questions about obscure details, but instead became a major player in the production. As the Bangor Daily News article says,

…he ended up spending long hours on the set working closely with the film crew. He helped to craft props, monitor the operation of a giant wave tank built especially for the film, and advised the film’s star, Suraj Sharma, on the mindset and physical challenges of being adrift at sea.

“I didn’t have a clue,” Callahan said of the workload he would assume. “I got sucked in more and more.”

Life of Pi received the Oscar award for Best Picture in 3013, no doubt some of this belongs to Lamoiner Steven Callahan.  I’m always amazed at the talented people within a stone’s throw of SeaCat’s Rest, I wish I were one of them. About the biggest challenge I have is occasionally sharing my electric boat with an unbanded lobster.


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Electric Boat Update 2013

Caution: Geek alert! This article may be wicked boring to anyone who is not interested in the minute details of electric boating.

One of the fun things about lobstering with an electric boat is that weird things happen all the time. Few people know how to put together an electric boat, so things go wrong when amateurs like me build one. So far I’ve managed to avoid sinking, but last October I was motoring to Lamoine State Park to meet the guy who pulls out my boat when all of a sudden, the motor quit. Nothing I could do seemed to bring it back to life, so I decided to tow Eleccentricity with my dingy. Normally I could use the rowing set-up on the big boat, but it was full of traps and I had no room. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the right way, so the job was not that difficult. When I got home I found the problem. I had made a splice in the heavy #6 cable which runs from the battery to the motor. The splice was an aluminum tube with set screws from Home Depot and was rated for outdoor exposure, but it couldn’t handle the marine environment. In fact, it simply turned into powder (aluminum oxide). I had done the wiring on the cheap anyway, using old jumper cables and cheesy splices when the pieces weren’t long enough. Now it was time for marine wiring! Besides replacing all the heavy cable I also increased the size from #6 to #4 (lower numbers are heavier). Marine wiring is tinned to withstand the salt exposure and of course, is more expensive.

Motenergy ME0909, from cloudelectric.com

The other thing that was going wrong was the motor was making chattering noises like it was having trouble getting power. It also had “dead spots” on start-up, so that I would have to manually turn the prop and try again. When I opened up the cover this winter I saw why. The brush holders were so corroded that the brushes were seized  and not making contact with the commutator. More corrosion. I pressed out the brushes and cleaned out the corrosion, sanded down the brushes a bit, applied to them a generous coating of grease and resolved to pay more attention to this issue. I also replaced as many parts with stainless steel as I could and painted the aluminum parts where possible. Now that Eleccentricity is in the water I also put a shower cap over my still-warm motor when I’m done with it. It runs smooth as silk now and is also much quieter. So much so that I thought the motor was using more power for a given speed. When I did the power VS speed test however, it was the same as last year. Thanks to the motor manufacturer, Motenergy, for their tech support.

Stancor 586-915 solenoid

My 4 KW powerplant

My old trailer broke in half as the boat was being launched, but that had nothing to do with it being electric, just another launch disaster. I did have a real breakdown however. One of my reverse solenoids stopped working in the forward mode. The problem was easily fixed by reversing the wires to the motor, although now I have no reverse. A new solenoid is on order. The real problem may be that I exceeded the amperage rating for the solenoid. My approach was to use a SPDT solenoid and make the forward mode the unpowered one (contacts made by return spring force). This is because it didn’t make sense to me to have to power a coil just to go forward, which is what you do 99% of the time. The problem with this is that solenoids are always rated higher on the coil (powered) side. The one I have is 100/300 amps. The 100 amp side (forward) was badly carboned up and no juice was getting through. I think that’s the biggest solenoid I could find for 36 volts. If this continues to be a problem I will have to once again reverse the cables to the motor and make it permanent, so I go forward on the 300 amp side. The other option is to watch my ammeter to prevent me exceeding 100 amps, I have gotten up to 120 amps at full throttle. That’s 4.32 kilowatts or 5.8 HP.

Unlike my rosy prediction last year that I would have my photovoltaics ready for this summer, it didn’t happen. Too many trips to Michigan and money spent on fixing up a house there. Maybe next year. I’m still charging with shore power; it could be worse! I could be riding in a noisy, smelly boat. Next year I should be cruising at 4 MPH on sunlight alone. If the sun ever comes out around here!

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Lobsters Can Live in your Mooring

I think I took this at Northeast Harbor

Traditionally in Maine boats are moored in their harbors not with big anchors, but heavy chunks of granite. These chunks weigh 4000 lbs and tend to partially sink into the mud, which increases the holding power. From time to time the moorings are raise up to inspect the steel U or eye bolts and chains. Now a new Maine company has come up with a better idea, a mooring with holes where critters can live.

It’s a simple idea really, as long as so many people are putting big, heavy rocks onto the sea bottom, why not create a reef-like habitat? Habitat Mooring of Hamden, Maine  has done just that, and at a price cheaper than granite.

from http://www.habitatmooring.com

I have always heard that concrete makes a poor choice for moorings because underwater it’s “lighter” than granite. All this means is that concrete is less dense and must weigh more on land in order to have the same weight under water. So to equal 4,000 lbs of granite on dry land (which is 2,500 pounds on the harbor bottom) the concrete mooring must weigh 4,450 lbs. The Habitat Mooring is cast of fiber-reinforced concrete and has 12 habitat holes to allow lobsters to find shelter at many times during their life cycles. But not only lobsters can live in the holes, “30 species of vertebrates and invertebrates, including lobster, Atlantic cod, flounder, pollack, sculpin, crabs and mollusks, as well as kelp and other important marine plants” were found on a mooring at Seal Harbor, Maine as compiled by Dr. Ian Bricknell, University of Maine, from dive videos taken in 2010 and 2011 by Mt. Desert Harbormasters Shawn Murphy and John Lemoine.*

As I get ready to launch Eleccentricity for another summer of lobstering, I find myself wishing I had a lobster habitat at the end of my mooring chain. The Habitat Mooring is available in four different sizes from Hamilton Marine.

* from APlaceToCallHome.pdf from the company website above.

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The Silence of the Clams

Walleye painting by Timothy Knepp

I have just spent over a month in Michigan. Ann Arbor is a great town and has a dazzling array of restaurants, but I found myself avoiding seafood. How fresh can a clam be in Michigan? OK, I’m spoiled. I can go down to the shore here at SeaCat’sRest and dig clams so fresh they don’t have time to scream before I drop them into boiling water. I had to work in the scream thing because I came up with this great title, but in reality I’m just fishing for a reason to use it.

Michigan has great freshwater fish: whitefish, smoked chub, lake trout and my favorite, walleye. But there’s the mercury  problem. Michigan’s fish advisory tells us:

from: www.michigan.gov/documents/FishAdvisory03_67354_7.pdf

Wow! Scary! The mercury is atmospheric, emitted mostly by coal burning power plants and concentrated in the fat of fish over time. Asia is the biggest polluter by far. Every step in the food chain concentrates the mercury approximately ten times. This is called biomagnification. Therefore a plant eating fish (or mammal) has much less mercury because it doesn’t eat the fat of other animals in which the mercury is concentrated. Mercury is one toxin among many, but it is the most important. Others include PCBs and Dioxins.

Human health risks from methylmercury exposure have been widely documented, and include neurological effects, impaired fetal and infant growth, and possible contributions to cardiovascular disease.


So what about fish from salt water? Doesn’t marine fish from Maine’s coastal waters also have unhealthy levels of mercury? Yes and no. True, older, bigger fish like bluefish, swordfish or shark, or fish which spend part of their lives in fresh water like striped bass should not be eaten by pregnant or nursing mothers. Also, the toxin-concentrating part of the Maine Lobster, the tomalley or liver ( the part Julia Child loved to make a sauce out of) should be avoided. But the State of Maine also says, “All other ocean fish and shellfish, including canned fish and shellfish: Pregnant and nursing women, women who may get pregnant and children under 8 years of age can eat no more than 2 meals per week.” That’s pretty liberal compared to the Michigan guidelines. The diluting effect of the vast ocean and the active tidal currents help to spread the toxins out so that Maine coastal seafood is not faced with the toxin uncertainty of freshwater ecosystems. The thing about saltwater fish is that the mercury levels are pretty unvarying. For example, the mercury level of .3 parts per billion is an average for a given species throughout the world’s oceans. If a given species had that level in Lake Michigan it might have twice that in one of Michigan’s interior lakes or rivers. This is because the local environment’s acid levels could be higher, putting more atmospheric mercury into solution.  So the warnings for Michigan’s fish must reflect this by assuming the worst case. Even more restrictive are the government warnings about Maine’s freshwater fish. No fish should be eaten by pregnant women or children under 8 except landlocked salmon or brook trout, one meal per month.

The take away from this brief review of the mercury problem in fish is to 1) observe the consumption guidelines for the fish in question, 2) Make sure the fish comes from a larger body of water and 3) eat young or small fish, and remove the fatty parts. Maine has a low level of mercury inputs, but most mercury comes from the atmosphere anyway. With our strong tidal currents, Maine’s coastal waters have no “hot spots” like an acidic Adirondack lake or industrial harbor. There’s still too much mercury for a perfect world, but as we move away from coal and other fossil fuels, the future looks brighter. As for clams, mercury is not the problem, pollution or red tide (paralytic shellfish poison) is what you call the hotline for: 1-800-232-4733 or 207-624-7727.

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Maine’s Oysters

Maine is synonymous with lobster, but we also produce some of the best oysters (Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster) in the world. In warmer areas oysters can be grown from egg to adult in a year, but in Maine they take three or more years to reach a harvestable size. The extra growing time results superior flavor and texture, firmer meat and a thicker shell. The nexus of the Maine oyster industry is the Damariscotta River, a little short of the halfway point up the coast from the NH border and about 100 miles from SeaCat’s Rest. Maine oysters are expensive but worth it, and people around the country are starting to find out. The Damariscotta River has hosted oysters for thousands of years as revealed by huge 2000 year old midden piles of shells left by Native Americans.

Growing oysters, unlike clams, is not just a process of harvesting a wild creature. The production of our prized bivalves starts with site selection. Oysters are endemic to brackish water, the estuaries of rivers where ocean waters mix with fresh. The fresh water must be clean. Polluted water would not only produce unhealthy oysters, they would taste bad as well. So like a fine wine growing region, specific rivers and even parts of rivers, produce the best oysters. Therefore they must be farmed intensively. Maine has 32 oyster farms. Relying on naturally occurring oysters in prime areas would be like harvesting wild grapes for wine.

The process of farming oysters starts in the hatchery in winter. Mature oysters are induced to produce egg and sperm by manipulating food and water temperature while they lie on trays in tanks . Fertilized eggs are at first free swimming but eventually attach to tiny crushed shells fragment provided by the hatchery. During this growth phase they consume huge amounts of algae, which must be provided in the hatchery. Eventually they achieve “grow out” where they can be transferred to mesh bags out in the river. Here their diet changes to a natural one, and they continue to grow until their size requires larger accommodations.

from http://www.pemaquidoysters.com/

Some growers keep their oysters in floating crates until they’re ready to harvest, but others transfer their investments to river bottom for a while. This requires either hand harvesting with scuba gear, or a mechanical dredge. Either way, the reward is a superior product, commanding a premium price in New York restaurants. Fortunately, visitors to Maine have the opportunity to sample Maine oysters near the source at a local price. Every September the village of  Damariscotta hosts an Oyster festival. Admission is free and the oysters are plentiful; 15,000 were served in 2012.

The Maine oyster industry is small compared to the lobster industry.  Currently oyster sales amount to $8 or $9 million dollars per year while lobster sales total $340 million. Although Maine oysters are often out-shined by lobsters, the product quality is just as good and they will likely grow in importance in the years to come.  Recent threats from disease and the possibility of hurricane damage still makes oyster farming a gamble, but Maine’s cold winters assure that our oysters attain a sweetness not present in fast-grown southern varieties. If you can afford a few Maine oysters at $1.09 each (supermarket price, 10/29/12) you will be able to enjoy a taste of the  briny-sweetness of Maine.

Our oyster appetizer. Photo by Pat Gray.


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