Maine lobstering general information

The American lobster (Homarus americanus, see Fig. 7.1) is found in the waters off the Atlantic coast of North America from Newfoundland to Virginia. Concentrations of lobsters are greatest in waters less than 55 meters deep. Although lobsters are found on all kinds of bottom types, they prefer rocky areas, especially where there is a good deal of kelp in which to hide.

Lobsters eat a wide variety of foods, both living and dead organisms. Their preferred foods are fish, mollusks and small crustaceans. They can also filter plankton from the water, and thus can live in untended traps for considerable periods. They are also cannibalistic and will eat small lobsters and soft shelled lobsters regardless of size. For this reason fishermen immobilize the lobster's claws, usually by placing a thick rubber band around each claw, making it impossible to open.

When lobsters have outgrown the capacity of their shells, molting occurs. During molting the lobster wiggles out of its shell, after which the lobster is soft, weak, and highly vulnerable. Its only defense is to hide for a few weeks until its shell has hardened again. Although lobsters can molt in any month, a very large proportion molt from mid-June to mid-August. For this reason, fishing is bad during mid-summer, since so many are in the rocks and not feeding. Small lobsters molt several times a year, but commercial size lobsters molt only once.

Lobsters mate after the female has molted. The female can exude as many as 50,000 eggs, which remain attached to her abdomen until they hatch, usually during the following summer. Female lobsters do not mature sexually until they are at least 80 mm on the carapace; and 50 percent are not mature until they reach 90 to 95 mm (Krouse, 1972, 1973).

Tail Fins

Fig. 7.1 The American lobster (Homarus americanus).

Tail Fins

Fig. 7.1 The American lobster (Homarus americanus).

Lobsters are not found in rivers or estuarine areas as they require highly saline water. Recent studies indicate that lobsters migrate locally. They tend to migrate in towards the shore during the warm months and into deeper water in the cold winter months. Water temperature affects migration, growth rates, mortality, and catches. Catches are maximized when mean annual sea water temperature is between 9° and 11°C (Dow, 1969, pp. 61-63).

Maine consistently produces far more lobsters than any other state in the US (Fig. 7.2). In 1989, approximately 9,000 lobster licenses were granted. About 2,400 of these fishermen can be considered as "full time." Only 9 percent of the licenses are held currently by women, and the majority of these go lobstering on a part-time basis, if at all; many serve as helpers for their husbands or boyfriends (Acheson, 1988b, p. 3).

Most full-time lobster fishermen fish from a diesel or gas-powered boat between 28 and 38 feet (8.5 and 11.5 m) long, equipped with radio, hydraulic pot hauler, electronic sounding gear, and perhaps a radar set. Lobsters are caught in three- or four-foot traps covered with wooden lathes or wire (Fig. 7.3). Fish remnants from processing plants generally serve as bait. The traps are attached to a styrofoam buoy. All of the traps of each fisherman are painted with a distinctive set of colors, which are registered with the State of Maine.

Fig. 7.3 A lobster fisherman leaves the dock with a small load of traps. (Courtesy of The Times Record, Brunswick, Maine.)

A lobster fisherman's activities vary considerably from season to season. Late summer and early fall are the busiest months of the year. It is at this time that a new year class of lobsters has molted into legal size. From August to October fishermen put as many traps in the water as possible and pull them every chance they get. Some two-thirds of the total annual catch is obtained during these months.

The mid-winter months of January, February, and March are the slow months of year for trapping lobsters. Bad weather and storms make the work more dangerous and difficult. Catches decline because lobsters are sluggish and not inclined to crawl into traps. Also, during these months, many fishermen pull their traps only a few times a month; others cease fishing entirely and use their time to build traps.

Any sizable harbor has at least one dealer who buys lobsters from local fishermen and sells them to tourists or to one of the wholesale firms in Portland (Maine) and Boston (Massachusetts), among other cities, distributing lobsters to the nation and foreign countries.

Fishermen ordinarily sell lobsters each day they go fishing to a single dealer with whom they have developed a long-term relationship (Acheson, 1985a). In recent years fishermen had formed cooperatives in 17 coastal communities (Acheson, 1988b, p. 129).

The lobster industry is highly territorial. To go lobster fishing, one must have a license from the State of Maine. In addition, one must be accepted as a member of a "harbor gang" - the group of fishermen who fish from a given harbor. Once entry has been gained, one can only fish in the traditional territory of that harbor gang. A typical fishing area might contain 130 to 260 km2 of ocean. Repeated violations of territorial boundaries usually result in surreptitious trap cutting; that is, the offender's traps are pulled up, the buoys are cut off, and traps are thrown into deep water where they cannot be found. Although destruction of another's traps is illegal, it is a standard method of defending boundaries. Sometimes small-scale incidents can escalate into full-fledged "cut wars" (Acheson, 1988b, pp. 71-83).

From 1920 to the present, lobstering has changed relatively little. In the 1920s, boats and traps were essentially the same as those used today. The boats were smaller, cockpits were largely open and there was no electronic equipment. At that time, traps were all wood; the wire traps were not used in numbers until the 1970s. Only a very few important innovations have been adopted since the 1920s. The most important is the hydraulic trap hauler, which came into general use in the early 1950s. This innovation made it possible for fishermen to pull many more traps in a day. Another important technological change was the introduction of nylon string, which in the early 1960s replaced hemp and other vegetable fibers as the material used to make "heads" - the funnel-shaped net used to retain lobsters that have entered the trap. Nylon lasts much longer than hemp or other such fibers and its use has greatly reduced trap maintenance costs. A third innovation has been the electronic sounder which has made it much easier to get data about the ocean floor. While radios, radar and Loran (an electronic navigational device) all helped to make lobstering safer, these innovations did not change the nature of the industry much.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the territorial system was in full bloom. However, in the past half century, territories have become larger, as abandoned island territories were incorporated into other areas, and the amount of area where mixed fishing has been allowed (i.e., an area fished by two harbor gangs) has increased because of competition among harbor gangs (Ache-son, 1979, pp. 265-75).

On the marketing scene, the major change has been the advent of cooperatives, which began in the late 1940s. Although there are only 17 cooperatives at present (1990), they serve as a check on the power of the private dealers. Should a dealer's behavior become impossible, fishermen can always form a cooperative (Acheson, 1985b, p. 121-8).

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