Out on the water


Lobster Lessons of 2012

The author struggles with banding

After reading all I could both on line and off in preparation for lobster fishing, I can say that I have learned a few valuable unwritten lessons after a summer of the real thing on the coast of Maine. As background, I got my five-trap recreational license in January of 2012. I went into this game thinking it would be a contest between me, the newcomer, and the established network of commercial fishers. Instead, it has been between me and the lobsters. I have not heard a word from any other lobstermen or marine patrol officers since I began.

One of my earliest expectations was that I would be catching an average of one keeper lobster per trap each time I hauled, which I expected to do every two to three days. I got this idea from watching youtube videos. Instead, I have been getting an average of one lobster per five traps. So much for my anticipated problem of having too many lobsters! This provides me with about three lobsters per week, about what I consider a nice amount for our household consumption.

The economics of this activity is dismal. While the cost of electric “fuel” is negligible-2¢  (readers may remember I have an electric lobster boat), the bait is not. Then there’s the time involved. Over an hour to get my one lobster, not to mention the physical effort of hauling traps by hand and cleaning the mud out of my boat.

Still, if given the choice of silently motoring over to my traps on a glassy, sun sparkled ocean or engaged at some other typical human activity, I’ll take the hauling of usually-empty traps any day. This hasn’t stopped me from musing over why my haul is so marginal in a year when there is supposed to be a “glut” of lobsters. The key to better lobster fishing I suspect, is to constantly move traps around. Just watching the trap buoys in front of SeaCat’s Rest tells me that this is exactly what the big boys do. Early summer there were many, now there are very few. Even I have moved mine halfway to Lamoine State Park in an effort to improve the catch. Then there’s the depth issue. People have told me that setting traps in very shallow water is the way to success, that commercial boats can’t get that close to shore, and they miss a bounty of shallow lobsters. I can’t recommend this. I didn’t work for me. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between depth and catch. My traps have 35-40 feet of rope which limits them to this depth at high tide. I tend to set them in deep water, but my problem in this is that with only 5 traps there is just no scientific validity to any of my results due to small sample size. If I had 100, 300 or 500 traps I could get a much clearer picture of which traps were successful. As it is, I have to watch the commercial guys for clues about where they set traps.

As for bait, I started out with salted herring, the classic lobster bait. This would disappear in a day or two, mostly from crabs. After going for my third five gallon bucket,  my supplier could no longer sell any to me due to short supply. I switched to hide bait. This is cowhide with its hair removed in a sort of brine which is about 4X as expensive, but is easier to store (requiring no refrigeration) and longer lasting, since even though it smells like a dead animal, it is like eating shoe leather. In fact, it is. I have found that even though the hide lasts a long time, it slowly becomes less stinky and therefore less effective as a bait. I tend to change it about once per week.

Cucumaria frondosa, Maine sea cucumber, from http://www.marlin.ac.uk

I do get interesting stuff in my traps. Besides (usually undersized) lobsters, I get a lot of crabs. I keep the biggest ones for picking. I get an occasional starfish. Some disgusting worms, sea cucumbers and hermit crabs round out the menagerie. Rubber gloves and a pair of tongs come in handy. Sometimes a seal will come by for a closer look or a school of mackerel will swoop around the boat.

As the fall turns colder I will give it up for another year. Next spring I will have my solar panels installed which will enable me to range further, so I will be more aggressive about finding better trap locations. I’d also like to settle the bait questions, finding a dependable supply and figuring out what kind is best. For now I’ll keep fishing until it’s no longer fun, a luxury the commercial guys don’t have. Hat’s off to them! Buy Maine lobsters!

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Electric Boating: The Range Issue

Probably the number one question I get asked about Eleccentricity, my electric lobster boat, is, “How far will it go before you have to stop and recharge?” Until now, I only had a vague idea. It’s like driving a car with a broken gas gauge. You develop a feel for when it’s time to stop for gas, but with an electric boat, you don’t even know how many “gallons” you put in. Now all that has changed with my latest semi-expensive gizmo, the Trimetric 2025 battery meter.

from www.bogartengineering.com

Batteries are rated by amp hour capacity, and that rating depends on how quickly they are discharged. My batteries are rated at 180-220 amp hours, fast discharge to slow discharge. Since I have six batteries that’s about 200 amp hours at 36 volts, or 7200 watt hours. So that’s 100 watts for 72 hours or 1000 watts for 7.2 hours.  There is no way to poke or prod a battery to find out how many amp hours are left. True, the rest voltage drops as the batteries are depleted, but once the batteries are put to work, voltage measurements no longer work as a measure of remaining capacity unless left undisturbed for a while. Inconvenient. The Trimetric solves this by keeping track of every amp used and how long, and maintaining a running total, starting at zero after a full charge. So if I go for three days without a charge (I normally charge once a week) I can instantly read what percentage of my battery bank still remains, based on the numbers I programmed into the meter unique to my system.

Refer to the top curve for Eleccentricity’s battery bank.

This brings up an important point about batteries (and you thought the complexity was over?), that you can’t drain the battery bank 100% without it shortening the life of the battery. The life of a battery is defined by the number of discharge/charge cycles it can go through, and if you discharge it below 50% on a regular basis you will be buying a new battery bank in a few years. I like to draw down no more than 30%, which should allow me 2000 cycles or 10 years. The new gizmo will help me with this.

Now that I have completed sea trials I can accurately answer the range question. The thing about electric propulsion is that slow is better. Double the speed and you will triple or even quadruple the power required. At low speeds the range is great: 200 miles at 1 MPH. With a modest 30% battery drawdown that range is 70 miles, not bad. Even at 3 MPH the range is around 28 miles, but with electric power it’s not like you stop abruptly after 28 miles, remember, you can always slow down a little and extend your range and even increase the discharge to 40% or 50%.

Things get interesting when we add solar panels (virtually, at this point). The new roof I added has the capacity to hold about 400 watts of solar. This alone has the ability to push the boat at around 4 MPH, giving infinite range at this speed…as long as the sun shines. By the usual standards of figuring solar gain, this would happen between 4 to 5 hours per day. It also means greater range at higher speeds, and the chance to recharge when at rest. But that’s another big chunk of change, not one I’m quite willing to part with at this time.

So why go electric? You can easily put an outboard on your boat and be like everyone else. I spent a little more and got a quiet ride, a recharged battery bank for less than a buck and smoke-free boating no matter which way the wind blows. And soon, my range will be extended…as long as the sun shines.

8/10 Update: I can now report that one circuit of hauling my 5 traps took 3 amp hours of battery reserve. That’s 1.5% of my total battery capacity, 5% of my drawdown goal of 30%, and 3 amp hours X 36 volts = 108 watt hours. If we assume a charge efficiency of 93% then it will take 116 watt hours of utility power, which sells for about $0.18 per kilowatt hour.  So the fuel for this 5 trap haul (round trip) cost .116 X .18=


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Small Reach Regatta 2012, Lamoine, ME

Our guests at SeaCat’s Rest sailed this elegant yawl.

Paradise was oozing from the sea and sky for the 2012 Small Reach Regatta at the Lamoine State Park. Our electric lobster boat Eleccentricity was invited to tag along on Saturday, July 21 for the day’s trip to Bean Island. Bean Island is wedged between Hancock Point and Sorrento, about 6 miles due north of Bar Harbor. The day started with little wind, a problem for the majority of participants since they had sailboats. But by 9:30 or 10:00 the wind had freshened to the extent that sailing was possible and even exciting.

We counted 30 boats under sail and a few more rowed. I felt like I was surrounded by butterflies. We kept Eleccentricity at about 4 mph with occasional bursts to get out of the way of a tack and kept up with the fleet just fine. Time commitments  prevented us from going all the way to Bean Island so after rounding the bottom of Lamoine we turned around and headed back. Sadly, this is the last year for the near future that Lamoine State Park will be the venue for the Small Reach Regatta. We will miss it! Happy to meet, sorry to part.

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Learning from Lobsters in Lamoine

Crabs invading? Eat them!

Slowly I seem to be getting the hang of catching lobsters. At first I used too little bait and only caught crabs. These are the crabs locally known as “peeky toes”, aka rock crabs. After pulling traps and finding only crabs I decided, what the heck, why not eat them?  I collected only the largest and managed to get a few. After boiling, and then an hour of picking the meat out, my six peeky toes yielded 1/2 pound! A lot of work but the crab meat was awesome. I started not feeling so bad about not catching lobsters. On this haul I spontaneously decided to do a little mackerel fishing. I caught one fish and decided to see if the mackerel would do a better job of attracting lobsters. I pulled up a trap I had baited and dropped less than an hour before and there were already 5 crabs in it! The crabs at the bottom of Frenchman Bay are countless and ravenous. They seem to be the main competition for lobsters for bait.

The other important part of this puzzle is that lobsters are mostly nocturnal, so they’re sleeping or chilling out while crabs are actively eating their food. By the time the lobsters are feeling peckish, the crabs have finished off all but the heads and bones. No wonder the lobsters stay away from my traps! The remedy is to put out more food so that there’s enough left for lobsters after nightfall. This means at least one herring in the parlor and two or more in the kitchen (lobster traps are divided into two halves, the parlor which is easy to enter and exit, and the kitchen which leads off from the parlor and is more challenging to enter—and exit). In addition, I have started to leave mostly-eaten bait bags behind so that it will still contribute to the smell of food. This seems to have done the trick, even to the point that the lobsters move in in groups and chase out the crabs. Now we’re talking! The other possible explanation is that the crabs realized I was starting to eat them and decided to leave my traps alone…..not likely.


Another approach would be to bait my traps at night. So far I have been pulling traps in the mornings so that I can avoid the wind which appears like clockwork as the sun heats the land. The wind in the evenings is less predictable. Still, I may try this.

Today I took my daughter out and she was armed with a camera. The fog was enough to make the distant shore blend into the sea and sky. We had significant numbers of lobsters, but ultimately only two keepers. The commercial lobster fishers are, according to rumor, on “strike” (not going out) so that the price will get higher. We therefore had the bay to ourselves.  It was a great time.

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A Real Zero-Carbon Maine Lobsterman

Last week I wrote an article predicting I would be the only lobster operation in Maine which was (or will be, when I get my roof panels) operating with a zero-carbon boat. I was premature! Matinicus Island fisherman Nat Hussey beat me to the punch, he’s the real deal, fishing 150 traps. The video below tells the story:

From the Penobscot Marine Museum website, http://www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org. Drawing by Thomas Bernardi.

His approach is different in several ways from mine. First, he started off thinking his craft would be mostly  rowed, so he had a peapod built. The Matinicus peapod is a classic rowing craft and has no resemblance to the modern lobster boat. Nat later added electric propulsion and a trap winch. My boat is more inspired by the modern Maine lobster boat, and power was integrated from the start. I would be hard pressed to row my boat to all my traps, even though I only have 5. My plan was as off-the-wall as Nat’s was traditional. He is intent on recreating the old lobstering ways while I’m thinking high tech. Still, our results are similar: we both get lobsters off the bottom and bring them home without diesel fumes!

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Electric Lobstering in Lamoine, Maine

Almost two years ago I announced my plan to obtain my recreational lobstering license and build a boat to go with it. I had the audacious plan to power this lobster boat with electricity using a built-in battery bank.  I envisioned the batteries to be charged by solar energy, making it possibly the first zero-carbon lobstering craft in Maine (with the exception of rowed or sailed craft, which I have never seen used for hauling traps).  I am about 2/3 of the way to my goal. I have the license, the traps, the bait, the boat, but not the photovoltaic panels to complete the package. Last winter I built the canopy on which to mount the panels, but because I wanted to see how stable the boat was before adding more weight on the roof, I stopped for the year.

About mid June I relaunched Eleccentricity and she now floats at her mooring in front of SeaCat’s Rest. Around her float five brightly painted buoys marking the locations of my traps. The roof does change the handling characteristics of the boat, and not for the better, but with the advantage of a hauling boom, shade and shelter from rain the trade-off is acceptable. Now if only I could find really light weight panels…

I had imagined, based on the reports heard from other five-trap people, that I would be hauling in huge amounts of lobsters. I have not had that much success. Some claim an average of one lobster per trap. I have been seeing about 1-1/2 lobster per five traps, making the whole enterprise rather hard to justify. I spend an hour and a half putting bait into bags, rowing out to the boat, pulling traps and cleaning old bait bags for about ten dollars worth of lobsters. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong. I have gained a new respect for the hard work of commercial lobster fishers!

My friends remind me, “Hey, you’re catching lobsters. How cool is that?” They’re right of course. To pull tasty seafood from one’s front yard is rather cool. Let’s not forget the clams and mussels on the way to the lobsters. So all I need to do is to keep experimenting: try different bait, different trap locations, different hauling intervals. I will watch and learn from the pros. As for my limited haul, I am planning to build a partially submerged crate for storing live lobsters to allow the accumulation of enough to feed more than one or two people. I’m also planning on fishing for mackerel to see if it is a better bait.

The peak of the lobster season is still ahead. So far there has been a “glut” (not my word) of soft shell or shedder lobsters on the market. One newspaper article claimed the price is below that of bologna. Hmmm. Hopefully, more of them will find their way into my traps. Lobsters, not bologna.

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Eleccentricity Gets a Top

What I unabashedly call Lamoine, Maine’s first electric lobster boat, Eleccentricity, has just received a roof or “dodger” for the future installation of photovoltaic panels. The ultimate goal is to have a zero-emissions motor boat. A side benefit is shelter from the rain and sun, not to mention an elevated platform from which to spot pirate ships.

I put this robust structure together in my garage. Of course it would not fit through the door when assembled (I knew this, really), so after disassembling it and painting or varnishing all the parts I had to devise a way to lift the roof onto the supports.  I had integrated a lifting tab into the roof for this purpose. Two big trees in the driveway gave me the idea that I could run a line between them and hoist the roof high enough to bring the boat under.  The first attempt failed because I used nylon rope which stretched so much the roof only got about five feet off the ground. I quickly replaced the rope with cable and there was zero stretch as the roof climbed about 12 feet. Then I simply maneuvered Eleccentricity under, mindful of my sudden possible death from falling dodger. I forgot to mention my difficulty finding a thing to tie the block-and-tackle line to after hauling the top up. I settled on a hooky thing underneath the bumper of my Honda Fit. I had just used it to pull out a big ornamental plant root ball, but that’s another story.

Anyway, a little jockeying of the boat and backing up of the Fit and the top settled down nicely without me even having to climb into the boat. Since then, I reloaded the 7 batteries and the electric outboard and am nearing launch for the summer of 2012.

One of the pitfalls of designing and building one’s own boat is the knot in your stomach which reminds you of a possible huge mistake. What if the dodger makes the boat so top heavy it flops over in the first strong wind? It does look unstable on the trailer, but I wanted to achieve standing headroom, and I’m not THAT tall. The 400 lbs of batteries in the lowest part of the boat should help, and after all, sailboats are notoriously top heavy. That’s why they have lead keels, and I have a lead keel too. Another concern is the fore-to-aft balance. Last year, without a dodger I found Eleccentricity a little stern-heavy. This put the motor well too far into the water and created more drag than I had hoped for; I was trying for a transom above the waterline.  The extra weight of the dodger (probably about 150 lbs–I didn’t weigh it because I broke the bathroom scale weighing the boat last year) will shift the balance more toward the bow.

The trap hauler shown in inset

Last year when I first launched I wired up the motor in reverse and the steering too. I could only go backwards by steering the wrong way. I am not afraid to look like a fool. This year’s launch may be just as entertaining.

Trap hauling in my driveway

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Salt Water Fishing in Acadia

Mackerel: great for kids

One of my best fishing memories was from around 1990 when I went fishing near Belfast, Maine with my two brothers-in-law for mackerel. One mackerel rig, available anywhere around here, consists of several hooks all tied to a stout central leader. I thought it odd that the design of this rig was so optimistic; after all, how likely would you be to have more than one fish on at a time? I was to find out. The fishing was great, and we did indeed get more than one on at a time. Mackerel are splendid fighters and they are beautiful too. Their streamline shape and iridescent coloring are however, better than their performance on the dinner plate. Many recipes attempt to improve upon the sad reward for your fishing effort. Figure on one meal per year, and keep them alive or as cold as possible. Mackerel are a little mushy, fishy and oily. They can be caught at mid summer right from the dock at Lamoine State Park, a mile away from here.

There are other options for the Acadia visitor to experience salt water fishing. Right from Bar Harbor you can take a 4 hour fishing trip aboard the fifty foot Tiger Shark. According to their website you might catch one or more of the following:  “cod, cusk, pollock, mackerel, cunner, sculpin, black sea bass, red fish, and the occasional wolf fish.” All tackle is provided. Presented as fun for the whole family, a half day of fishing aboard the Tiger Shark will set you back $45 for adults or $35 for children or non-fishing adults.

One anonymous board poster recommends avoiding Bar Harbor’s Tiger Shark in favor of Southwest Harbor’s Vagabond. (207.244.5385). The prices are a little higher but apparently there is greater likelihood of fishing success, and they haul lobster traps too. Their fish: “cod, cusk, cunner, school pollock, mackerel, sculpin, redfish and occasionally a wolf fish or a mako shark”. One fun part of this trip is a trap lottery, where you are given a number corresponding to a lobster trap, and you get to keep any legal lobsters in that trap when it’s hauled. Find out more here.

Neither of these options are the white-knuckled alpha male versus man-eater fishing experience you might be used to in other places. But don’t despair! If that’s your thing, how does shark or tuna fishing sound? To “tussle with the bad boys” (not my words), you need to shell out bigger bucks for private charters. Try http://www.obsessioncharters.com/ME_fishing/maine.htm, http://www.mainefishingcharters.com, http://www.gofishmaine.com, http://www.biggernbetter.com, or http://www.fishinganddiving.com. All of these charters are outside of the Acadia area but within a few hours’ drive.

Finally, if you just want to get an educational cruise with sight seeing and contact with sea life, consider the following options. Island Cruises leaves from Bass Harbor and for $29/$18 offers sight seeing and trap hauling. Find out about hauling lobster aboard  Lulu here and especially for kids, check out Diver Ed’s story here. There are many more opportunities for experiencing nature, but if it’s saltwater fishing you want these are the choices. Two other fish should be mentioned, bluefish and striped bass. Stripers are tightly regulated and deserve a post of their own. It is against the law to catch them beyond 3 miles from shore and so they are thought of more as a river fish, where they spawn.

Bluefish from wikipedia.com

Bluefish seem to be usually further south. I have fished for them out of Rockland and can attest to the fun of catching them, but like mackerel, they are not a tasty fish. In fact they’re even less tasty! Do not associate Bar Harbor’s Cafe Bluefish with bad tasting fish. It’s just a name!

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Elvers Sighted in Maine

Hey, that’s Elvers, not Elvis. Still, there’s just about as much excitement this spring caused by the baby eels as The King caused back in the ’70s. What is this all about?

Elver is a name given to a small baby eel (American eel, Anguilla rostrata) which is craved by the Japanese. The local sources of their version of the snake-like sea creatures (Anguilla japonica) have all but disappeared. They like to get them from nature and raise them in captivity and then eat them. What makes everyone excited these days is that the price per pound has now exceeded $2,000, so those lucky 400 with licenses to catch eel babies in Maine can often make their entire year’s income in a few days.

from BoatingLocal by Tom Richardson

Catching elvers consists of staking out a good spot on a riverbank at night. You need a small dipnet, a 5 gallon bucket and a Colman lantern. Besides the license, that’s it. The other trick is to get your catch to a broker while they’re still alive and healthy. Once you get to know your buyer however, he can arrange to come to you. The translucent, pencil-like eels squirm like a young Elvis on stage, but each one is worth $5. Our preference in food may be more like Elvis’s fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches, but eel is quite a delicacy in the Orient, and some Mainers are very happy about that.

The American eel starts its life in the Sargasso Sea, that huge swath of the mid-Atlantic east of the Bahamas and south of Bermuda. It also returns there to spawn and die in the fall. In between, it lives in fresh water, but it takes a year before the tiny larvae become elvers, also known as glass eels. It is these glass eels which are sought after now, and which the Japanese, Koreans  and Chinese raise to adulthood for the dish pictured on the top right. I have also had smoked eel from Larsen’s fish market in Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard, MA., but I’m pretty sure it was caught at sea. It was boney, but good. A quick check of Larson’s webpage showed no smoked eels for sale now. So it’s off to the nearest Japanese restaurant if you want some. Otherwise it’s Heartbreak Hotel.

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Red Lobster’s “Maine Lobster”…NOT!

Dear MLA,

I just wanted to voice a concern about an advertisement of Maine Lobster. I again just saw the Red Lobster commercial depicting them as selling Maine lobster. The most recent commercial even portrays Maine lobstermen on it.

I have boycotted this business for the past few years after eating at two separate Red Lobsters while on vacation in Florida because every lobster I saw there had “product of Canada” bands on the claws…..

Mike Drake

Cuddy’s Harbor

Reprinted in shortened form from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association newsletter, April 2012.

Another letter in the same issue is from Mainers who took a Carnival cruise out of Florida and were served “Maine lobsters” without claws! Clawless lobster species are from warmer waters and could be a number of other lobster species, but not Homarus americanus, our north American lobster. Why should we care about whether a lobster is from Maine or not?

First, let’s hear from Red Lobster’s parent company, Darden Corporation:

….we are also the largest buyer and promoter of North American lobster in the world.In order to meet our annual usage needs, we must source North American lobster from both the United States and Canada. The term “Maine lobster” is commonly used interchangeably with North American lobster and Atlantic lobster. The USFDA also refers to the Homarus americanus species as “Maine Lobster”. Given that “Maine Lobster” is the most recognized and accepted term among consumers, that is the term we use.

Rich Jeffers

Directer of Communications

Darden Corporation, Orlando, FL

Also reprinted in shortened form from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association newsletter, April 2012.

The industrious journalists at MLA did some research and found Mr. Jeffer’s claim to be wanting; the FDA uses the word “lobster” as the “Acceptable Market Name” and “American lobster” as the Scientific common name. In fact, according to the FDA you can legally use the word “lobster” to describe Homarus gammarus, the European lobster. The word “Maine” was not mentioned anywhere. When Melissa Waterman from MLA wrote back to Mr. Jeffers with these observations, she got no response by press time.

So why should we care about this? After all, New Brunswick lobster is every bit as good as Maine lobster…probably. Why then would Red Lobster find it necessary to attach the Maine brand to Canadian lobster? Why would Carnival try to pass off spiny lobster as Homarus americanus? Could it be our reputation for clean cool waters? Our remarkable sustainable fishery? Or maybe they just want to evoke happy memories of that last time you came to Maine. I’m not advocating a boycott of anyone, no one wants a collapse of the lobster market, but a few words to the manager of your favorite lobster restaurant might be in order.

Excuse me, I need to go dig in my garden for a few Idaho potatoes and stop in my greenhouse to water my Florida oranges and prune my Georgia peach tree.

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