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Boom Time for the American Lobster

A generations-old fishery in Maine is a beacon of creative management and sustainability in an age of overfishing.

{mosimage}John Butler steers the Miss Susan IV around the south side of Richmond Island in the Gulf of Maine, searching the blue horizon for yellow and orange buoys. The cloudless sky and gentle swell are inviting, but his only companions are a few scattered lobster boats, an entourage of hungry gulls and a pair of acrobatic bluefin tuna chasing schools of mackerel. The codfish fleets, crippled by dwindling stocks, moved on from here long ago. Now, lobsters—and lobstermen—rule these waters.

Watching Butler haul traps from the sea floor, you can see why the two have prospered together. Butler makes a living gathering the sea's riches, yet he flips one lobster after another back into the cold dark water.

Too small. Big enough, but carries little black eggs under her tail. No eggs, but the small notch a previous lobsterman left in her tail flipper means she recently "egged out" and may soon again.

Suddenly, a monster six-pounder surfaces, its claws bigger than a man's fist. It's a male—no eggs and no notch. Butler raises it proudly, smiles, then drops it off the side. Too damned big. "That one right there was probably a $35 lobster," he estimates. "Now he's back there reproducing." It's a ritual passed down by generations. "We always throw back more than we keep. What other fishery can say that?"

Few wild fisheries can match the American lobster's record of sustainability. Maine's annual haul, which accounts for the bulk of the U.S. catch, hovered around 20 million pounds a year from 1950 to 1990. Then the fishery exploded, reaching 63.2-million-pounds last year. Experts are baffled by this. But, says Bob Bayer, director of The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, its success simply proves that conservation works.

"I think it's probably the best managed fishery, maybe in the world," he says. To appreciate what makes the lobster fishery unique, it helps to understand the lobstermen. Small, tight-knit communities, shared harbors, old masters, young apprentices and a fierce territoriality feed a sense of shared ownership—and responsibility. "What's happened here," says anthropologist Jim Acheson, "is that you have evolved a great conservation ethic."

There are about 7,000 lobster boats working along the Maine coast, each one a family business with one or two employees. Butler wasn't born into lobstering the way many were. He taught middle school science long enough to afford his own boat and traps. At 55, with gray creeping into his sandy hair, Butler throttles his 37-foot boat from one yellow and orange buoy to another off Cape Elizabeth. He points to other buoys around him, each a unique combination of bright colors. "That's my nephew's," he says. Or a former helper's or sternman's, who now compete with Butler. That's the way it works. "They earned it," he says.

Older, skilled lobstermen have a lot of influence, and they use it to pass on their techniques and conservation values. "There's a kind of socialization process that goes on," says Acheson. "When you're getting started, you're observed very carefully."

Lobstermen also work in very small areas. "They generally don't go any more than 10 or 20 miles from their home harbors," Acheson explains. "These people are fishing side by side with the same individuals from the same harbors day after day." The social structure makes it easy to keep an eye on each other. Anyone caught cheating—keeping illegal lobsters or poaching from someone else's trap—is dealt with swiftly.

Training for newcomers is actually state-regulated. Registered apprentices need at least two years' experience and then must wait until enough old-timers retire or die to make room for them. Butler's current sternman, Bob Raymond, hopes to set his own traps someday. "It could take anywhere from three to seven years," Raymond says. "But there's just so much to learn."

Butler shifts the boat into idle about seven miles offshore over a shallow ledge called the East Hue and Cry and reaches over the side for a buoy. The power winch hauls the first of nine traps 60 feet to the surface. He heaves the three-foot-long rectangular "pot" onto the Miss Susan IV's side rail. Raymond empties it, throws in more bait and stacks it in the stern. Keepers are tossed in a seawater tank, claws banded, as the next trap slides down the rail. They repeat the drill 300 times in a 10-hour day.

"These are really nice lobsters here," Butler confides, pulling several pound-and-a-halfers out of the string of traps.

But he's feeling crowded. Green and red buoys surround him. Last season, a pinched nerve forced him to stay on shore. When he returned this summer, newcomers had moved into his spots. He pulls the Miss Susan IV alongside his neighbors to explain, delicately, that he was setting traps here before they were born.

Wrangling over territories can get ugly, with slashed tires, vandalized boats, brawls and even gunfire. The more common way to settle a dispute is by taking a knife to a rival's buoys, leaving traps lost on the seafloor. "To say in 29 years I've never seen a cutting war would be a lie," Butler says.

Territoriality in the lobster fishery is well established, even if it goes against the basic law of the sea. The oceans are a public resource and no one can claim ownership of the seafloor, or any piece of it. Still, authorities have little interest in undermining a culture that limits fishing pressure, prevents free-for-alls and fosters a tradition of stewardship.

Maine, in fact, has institutionalized the territorial culture, dividing the coast into seven zones, each with a council of lobstermen who devise fishing rules for their harbors. "The conservation measures that are in place are backed by the fishermen. They believe in what they're doing," says Bayer.

The cornerstones of those measures are the v-notch and size rules. V-notching dates back to a 1917 Maine law against selling pregnant lobsters. When lobstermen trap a lobster carrying clusters of black eggs, they punch a small notch into the end of her tail, which remains visible for about two years. Any lobster carrying a notch gets thrown back to rejoin the brood stock.

Size rules took effect in the 1930s. The minimum legal size for lobsters is a 3 1?4-inch carapace. This allows them to reach about seven years of age and sexual maturity. If they dodge a gauntlet of traps for several more years, they can exceed the maximum size—a 5-inch carapace—and become part of Maine's protected brood stock. The larger and older a lobster gets—and they can live to be 100—the more eggs they can produce.

Four hundred years ago, Native Americans collected lobsters in tidal pools for easy meals or for fishing bait. European colonists later used them to fertilize crops or feed to the servants, some of whom rebelled and demanded they be fed lobster no more than three times a week. It wasn't until the 1800s, after fishermen figured out how to preserve the meat and transport live lobsters to Boston and New York, that the commercial fishery was born. Scientists have been studying the Homarus americanus for more than a century—and the crustacean still keeps them guessing. No one can tell a lobster's age, for example. And no one knows for sure why there are now so many of them in the Gulf of Maine. Not that there aren't theories. Slightly warmer ocean temperatures may have expanded habitats. But maybe not. The decline of predators, such as cod, may allow more baby lobsters to grow into bigger ones. Who knows?

"All of these things play a role, for sure, but the number one predator for lobster is man," says Diane Cowan, a biologist and founder of The Lobster Conservancy, which houses about 300 impounded lobsters on an island in Muscongus Bay. She has spent enough time with the crustaceans to document their mating rituals and social interactions and to respect their persistence. "They've been around this place a lot longer than us so they must be doing something right."

Cowan admires the conservation ethic of lobstermen but worries that the boom has lured too many people. "Twenty million pounds [a year] was probably sustainable," she says. "Sixty million pounds may not be."

But the biggest fear is a shift in environmental conditions that might leave the fishery vulnerable. Recent lobster population declines in southern New England and in Long Island Sound have taught us that disease and other factors can quickly shift the balance of even the most prosperous fishery. "There are going to be ups and downs," Bayer says. "But we're doing all the right things. There's a brood stock out there."

To the lobstermen themselves, decades of conservation have paid off substantially. In recent years, captains have earned well over $100,000 in a season. But the rewards are not without risk. Every few years a lobsterman gets wrapped in a trap line and is lost overboard, and close calls are all too common. Off the coast of Cape Elizabeth, Butler looks over his shoulder just in time to see a trap line pinning Raymond against the stern rail. "Jesus!" Butler yells. He throws the Miss Susan IV into reverse and scrambles back to grab the line.

The men finish hauling for the day and throttle up to a wooden wharf on Portland's waterfront. They unload 200 pounds of lobsters at Ready Seafood Co., which supplies East Coast restaurants. The catch barely pays for bait and fuel. Butler's convinced, though, that he'll be catching two or three times that many lobsters as the season heats up in the fall. It's just this kind of optimism about the next day and the next trap and the next season that is ingrained in both the fishery and the lives of the people who watch over it. "Once you've lived the life, there really isn't any other life," Butler says. "But you have to live it to know what I mean."

The lobster cycle From pot to plate

American lobsters traditionally come in two varieties: hard shell and soft shell. Suppliers, however, have added a third choice, firm. Shell hardness is a function of the annual shedding cycle, and the harder the shell, the better the lobster—and the higher the price.

Maine lobsters typically molt in early summer, then hide in burrows until their new shells harden into the thickness of heavy paper. They venture out again after a few weeks. If they're caught at this stage, they are soft shells. Their shells gradually firm up until, in winter, they become full-fledged hard-shell lobsters. What suppliers call a firm lobster is simply a soft shell lobster that's not so soft anymore.

The critters don't always keep to the schedule. There's a lot of overlap in the seasons and sometimes the shed doesn't start until late in the summer. "They don't have any calendars down there," says Pete McAleney, owner of New Meadows Lobster in Portland, Maine.

McAleney dismisses any claims about a difference in taste between soft and hard lobsters. But there are two indisputable reasons that hard shell lobsters are the fishery's premium product. First, they're most able to survive shipping. And second, they have more meat inside.

Lobsters make their new shells with room to grow, so a recent shedder has less meat and more water inside. "You see a scruffy old shell, and that's the one that's going to have the meat yield," says Bob Bayer of the University of Maine's Lobster Institute. Meat yield is especially important to chefs who want a prime lobster for baking or for splitting and grilling.

Brendan Ready of Ready Seafood Co. in Portland sticks hard-shell lobsters in a chilled seawater tank that slows their metabolism and gets them ready to ship. Shippers pack lobsters in ice covered with damp foam or newspaper to keep them cool. Some prefer seaweed to cover the lobsters, although it adds to the weight and the cost.

Hard-shell lobsters are in demand year-round and generally cost $2 a pound more than soft shells. The price peaks around April, when the hard-shell catch has to supply the entire market. It was about $9 this past spring and dropped to about $7 or $8 per pound in late summer.

Soft-shell lobsters have traditionally filled the local markets in New England and supplied processors in Canada. But, with lobster demand even healthier than the supply, dealers are now shipping a growing volume of firmed up soft-shell lobsters to wholesalers and restaurants. Firm lobsters don't have the meat yield of hard shells, but they are cheaper and they do travel well if handled properly, dealers say.

Unless there are barnacles on the shell—always a good sign of age—it's hard for an untrained handler to tell the difference between a firm lobster and hard one. A tip: pinch the underside of the lobster's knuckle and look for a bubble in the small window there. True hard-shell lobsters won't have room for any bubbles.

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