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Maine Lobster Industry Thrives

The lobster has long been a symbol of the northeastern U.S. state of Maine. But this spidery crustacean, which breeds in abundance in the Atlantic waters along the state's rocky coast, is more than a mere icon. Its meat-filled tail and claws are prized the world over as a delicacy, and, for those who ply the cold coastal waters to trap the beasts, lobstering is both livelihood and way of life.

Up in Stonington, Maine, at the tip of Deer Isle, you won't see many fishermen down by the town harbor anymore because the once-abundant schools of cod, haddock, hake and other so-called ground fish are nearly gone. But you can still watch lobstermen down at the dock, preparing their small boats, and hoping for a good day's haul.

"You can go out to haul lobsters if you want to, or you can stay home, but if you want to go after the lobsters, they're there!" says George Trundy, a one-time lobsterman who now manages the local lobster cooperative. Trundy adds, the money is good, and the independent lifestyle is even better.

With the clear skies and moderate wind, it's a perfect day for lobstering, and Eugene Greenlaw of Lubec, Maine, a coastal village not far from the Canadian border, is ready. He switches on the engine of his small boat, adjusts his hip-high rubber boots and aims the craft for one of the 150 or so red buoys he has pre-positioned in the coves nearby.

Each of Greenlaw's buoys indicates the location of a wire mesh lobster trap, each measuring about 2 X 1.5 meters, that Greenlaw has baited with herring, then cast overboard to rest on the sea floor. The trap is a time-tested way to lure hungry lobsters.

"It's fixed at an angle so that when the lobsters go down in the trap, they are searching around for that hole to come back out, and they don't know which way they came in. So they are sort of stuck there for a little while." But lots do find their way out again. "Considering the number of lobsters that get into a trap, a very slight number get caught. You are very fortunate to catch the few, I guess," he adds.

What happens when we arrive at out first set of traps seems to prove the point. Greenlaw grabs a cable line connecting a buoy to his trap below with a long metal hook, then puts the cable into a mechanical winch which hauls the trap above board. The first trap is empty, except for some seaweed, a few hermit crabs, and an empty bait bag. He puts in a fresh bag of herring bait, salted and drained of blood, to prevent rot.

"I am not a fisherman who likes to use stinky bait," he says. "That's why I like to get the blood drained off. Some fishermen like to think if the bait stinks you catch more lobsters. I don't think that is so."

Many of the lobsters that are caught are illegal to keep. If a lobster is bearing eggs, for example, the lobsterman must notch a "V" mark on its second flipper with a knife, and throw the creature back. "That lets other fishermen know that lobster has the spawn onto it, and it's a seed lobster so we can use it to furnish the ocean back with more eggs," he explains, "so it cannot be taken. That lobster will live a whole [long] life."

For many years, ground fishermen have tried to haul in as many fish as they could, without regard to species or size or remaining resources. This approach has resulted in today's near-catastrophic shortage of fish. In contrast, says George Trundy, regulation and restraint have paid off well for the lobster industry.

"I went fishing in the 50s and 60s," he recalls, "and we never caught the [number of] lobsters then that we do now. And it's due to management. They've put limits on the trap and the [lobster] size. You can't catch the females. And I also think that [with] the ground fish not being around, they don't eat the eggs like they used to."

Active human intervention has also helped the industry. Fisherman-scientist Ted Ames runs a lobster hatchery where lobster eggs are fertilized and grown to a length of 14 millimeters. They are then carefully released in groups of up to 15,000 or more into optimum wild habitats where they can grow to maturity. It's a process that requires about six or seven years. And knowing exactly where to release them requires both fishing experience and scientific data.

"We spent a good part of the spring collecting location of nursery habitat from fishermen who fish in the areas where these are going," says Ames, "so we're pretty sure we've got a good chance to get them off to a good start."

Not everyone who depends on this way of life finds it ideal for the next generation. lobsterman Chandler Eaton, whose family has harvested these waters for generations, has just come ashore after a day out with his young grandson. "I don't want him out here," he grimaces. "It's too hard of a work. I want him educated. I'm not an educated man at all."

When it is pointed out to him that he makes a good living from this traditional craft, Chandler answers with a grin, "Well, it's common sense. It's got nothing to do with a book!"