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Lobster Fishermen Struggle as Profits Drop

At 68, Skip Ryan has been catching lobster for 46 years
At 68, Skip Ryan has been catching lobster for 46 years

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In the port of Boston, amid the cargo vessels and whale-watching boats that motor in and out of the harbor each day, a handful of fishing vessels still make their livelihoods from the bounty of the waters.

No one would blame Skip Ryan if he didn't do this anymore.

It's four o'clock in the morning on one of the remaining lobster boats in the area and the 68-year-old fisherman is dragging a plastic trunk of fish carcasses across the dock toward his boat. The smelly haddock and pollack remains are bait.

In the 1980s, 80 lobster boats could be found in Boston Harbor. Today, there are 27.
In the 1980s, 80 lobster boats could be found in Boston Harbor. Today, there are 27.

All in a day's work

Ryan's skin is weathered. He's got creases in his neck and his canvas work pants seem to hang on his lean frame. He's made a living from catching Boston Harbor lobsters since 1964. He started even earlier.

"When I was a little kid, I found a couple of traps washed up on the beach and I was mesmerized by it, you know. With the nets and all that," he says. "I took home like four or five old ones, put them in my bedroom and rebuilt them and everything, and then finally went and got a license and put them in the water. So, basically, that's how I started. Sometimes I'm not sure if I've done the right thing or not."

The first stop for his 12-meter boat, "Finest Kind," is a channel right off the waterfront. Cruise ships dock on one side. On the other, long-haul cargo ships unload their containers. In the middle, Ryan starts pulling up his first line of lobster traps for the day.

Each trawl is basically a rope strung with twenty-five lobster traps - wire cages, each the size of a big trunk. As Ryan winches up the lobster traps from the channel floor, Paul Cabral pulls out any lobsters large enough to harvest, and throws back the rest along with anything else that got caught in the trap - mostly crabs and starfish. Then he puts in new bait - those fish carcasses.

Paul Cabral lines up the lobster traps on the boat's deck.
Paul Cabral lines up the lobster traps on the boat's deck.

Making do

Lobstering is not Cabral's main line of work. "I did it 20 years ago as a kid. I just needed some extra work."

He's been Ryan's sternman for the last month. They've been heading out extra early this week to beat the heat. It's now five in the morning, and Boston office towers are punching through the dawn haze. Cabral has worked in those buildings, too.

"An elevator mechanic. But I got laid off. So I'm waiting for Barack to do something about the economy so I can go back to my regular job," he says. "Hopefully things will get better quick, you know, because I love fishing, but not at 45 years old."

The first trawl is disappointing. They have only a dozen lobsters for twice as many traps. So they keep the traps on board and haul them out to a new spot farther out in the harbor.

After a long day, Skip Ryan prepares to take his lobster catch to a buyer.
After a long day, Skip Ryan prepares to take his lobster catch to a buyer.

"That's where the majority of the lobsters are, they're in the deep water," says Ryan. "That's where the channels are, so you gotta compete with the ships. Sometimes a barge, between the barge and the tug, the cable hits the bottom and it'll grab your trawl and scoop up a bunch of traps."

Ryan has lost a lot of traps that way. But he's also dragged up things ships have lost. Anchors, for one. He has one in his front yard. He once pulled up a molasses jug from the 1800s. And, right now, the trawl he's pulling up is brimming with lobsters. There are even a few five-bangers - traps with five harvestable lobsters in them. They're beautiful: pumpkin claws and green legs clouded by a veil of gray speckles.

Soon, 64 of these half- to one-kilo crustaceans are flopping around in wooden boxes. The two men work, and don't talk much. The only interruptions are seagulls and shouts from the two-way radio - other lobstermen shooting the breeze.

Challenging times

Back in the 80s, there was a lot more chatter. Eighty lobster boats ran out of the Boston Harbor. Today, there are 27.

The bounty isn't what it used to be. Thirty years ago, lobsters flourished around the sewage dumped at the edge of the harbor. They fed on the worms that fed on the sludge. Harbor cleanup put an end to that. But Ryan says that's not the main reason the number of commercial lobster boats has dropped in the Boston Harbor.

"It's not profitable. There's easier ways to make a living. The cost of doing business keeps going up. The cost of materials, bait and fuel, and the price of lobsters hasn't kept up with it. A lot of guys say it's just not worth it."

Ryan says he used to net 70 percent of what he sold. Today his profit margin is 30 percent.

After eight hours on the water, pulling up, emptying, and resetting 250 traps, the boat heads back to the Boston waterfront. The sun is straight above. Sailboats slice the water. Even at 68-years-old, Skip Ryan is not ready to give this up yet.

"People ask me, how long are you going to go, when are you going to give it up?" he says. "I'll know when it's time."

Back at the dock, Ryan and Cabral empty 135 kilos of lobsters. He'll get $10 per kilo. He'll buy more bait, clean the boat and get everything ready to go out again tomorrow.

Skip Ryan says commercial fishing may never return to what it used to be. But this lobster boat captain thinks as long as there are lobsters in the Boston Harbor, there will be lobstermen to drag them up.

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