Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Maine: Eastport Lobster fishing

     Welcome back to Moose Island, Maine.  Fishing has always been at the heart of the community here - the first European inhabitants established fishing camps.

     A unique sculpture along the water looks like a fish hatching out of an egg.

     Early accounts speak of fish so plentiful during spawning season that people would catch them with pitch forks.  In fact, the local Indian tribe is known as the Passamaquoddy which translates to "The People of the Pollock."

     We saw how the sardine canneries came and went, how boat building left and is now making a come-back.  Today we are looking at a fishing industry that has just come to the area in the last twenty years and is just now catching its stride.  We are heading out with the crew of the "Ocean Warrior," a 49 foot boat designed to catch lobster.

     A couple of the modifications are indicated by the red arrows below.  

     First is the rear of the deck - you will notice that it drops off flat.  This is so lobster traps can slide off of the deck unimpeded.   Another modification marked in red is a large steel plate on the side of the boat.  This is to protect the side of the ship where traps are hauled aboard.  We saw these boats being built at Millennium Marine - where they bring about $600,000.   

     The work "day" starts just before 3 am when we meet at the boat.  It is a two hour ride out to the fishing grounds, and there is a lot to get done on the way out.

     Bins of herring have been loaded aboard to use as bait in the lobster traps.

     All of this bait is packed into small mesh bags so that while it attracts the lobster, they can't just tear it right apart.

     47 year old Jason Aubuchon is packing the bait bags.

     Jason has a degree in finance from Missouri State and worked for some years selling payroll and accounting services.  He had long tired of office work when a friend suggested he try commercial fishing, and he has not looked back since.  He has worked these waters for five years; previously he fished in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Atlantic from the Carolinas.

     There is a heavy fog that lies over the water the entire day, not unusual for summertime in Maine.  We finally arrive at the fishing grounds and the men get to work.

     The traps are laid out in long lines - 14 traps on each run.  Today we are picking up 39 lines for a total of 546 traps.  Marker buoys indicate the end of the ropes that go down to the lines.  With waters ranging from 250 to 300 feet deep, the ropes that tie the traps and the marker buoys together run a half mile in length.

     Upon spotting the buoy at the end of a line, the first order of business is to hook the rope and pull the line aboard.  

     This is Howard, a 41 year old father of three children who is raising three step children.  

     Howard spent four years getting a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Maine, but has taken to fishing rather than teaching.  The money allows him to support a family and there is a lot more scenery at work.  He has been with this crew for 5 years.

     Aboard the boat is a pulley system the ropes are hooked to.   This in turn is driven by the engine, so the boat does the work of pulling the traps up from the ocean floor.

      Shortly after the buoys are on board the anchor for the front of the line comes up.  This is temporarily stowed on the back ledge of the boat.

     The lobsters are "pre-sorted" as they come out of the trap, with the ones that are obviously too young being pitched back into the sea.  Here Howard shows his mad "Air Jordan" skills with a behind-the-back toss.

     Meanwhile Jason pulls out the old bait bag and replaces it with a fresh one.  These traps have a life expectancy of five to ten years, and cost a bit over $100 per trap.

     Here is what this work is all about - Maine Lobster.

     Lobster from these waters are world renowned for their quality.  The largest of these can tip the scales at over 40 pounds, making this the largest crustacean in the world.

     A second sorting is done on a work table, where an exact size measurement is taken.  Those large enough have a large rubber band placed on their claws and are dropped into a "live well."

     The live-well is just a large containing area where fresh seawater is continually pumped through.  

     The third member of the deck crew is Randy.


     47 year old Randy has two children of his own and is raising four step-children.  He has fished these waters all his life, and when he isn't lobstering he is digging clams.  Randy has been working on this crew for 15 years.

     When a full line is up the traps run in two rows all the way back the boat.  As the ropes are brought in, they are carefully laid out so that they won't tangle up.

     When a line is line is completed, Randy throws the anchor back in the water.

     The boat surges forward, and the weight of the anchor pulls the traps off the boat one by one.  They move along pretty fast - a foot tangled in a rope would almost certainly mean death.

     After the last trap hits the water, the other anchor is yanked off the back rail.  Another couple hundred feet of rope and the marker buoys are yanked off the boat as well.

     These guys go through this same routine twice a week, nine months a year.  They are practiced and proficient, each knowing the other's next move. 

     Orchestrating the whole show is David Pottle, a son of Eastport who has raised two daughters in this area.

     David has a computer to help him with navigation - it shows the gps location of the boat, the depth of the water and the spots where the trap lines are laid out.

     David grew up with a father who had a local construction and excavation business, and has worked since he was a young man.  His mother said that about as soon as he could walk he was trying to get lawn mowing jobs.

     As of twenty years ago, there were no lobstermen working out of Eastport.  David and a few others started out small, and have grown it into a viable local industry since.

     David had engineered a bunch of large tanks at his house to hold the lobster he caught until they could be taken to market.  Other folks started lobstering, and they relied on him to hold their catch.  This grew so large that four years ago he decided to buy a property on the end of the island.  The first order of business was to remove the ruins of an old cannery and create a proper facility.

     David has since built this spit of land into this site.  On the far right is the pier, and then the office and warehouse area.  On the left end are receiving and shipping docks where trucks can back right up to the facility.

     Inside, David built Maine's largest indoor lobster holding tanks.  You see, if lobster are kept in water 40 degrees or below, they go into a sort of hibernation state.  

     Lobsters can be kept in this state for as long as two months before they show any appreciable weight loss.  This is a huge advantage when it comes to dealing with the wholesale markets.  When prices dip, David can hold the lobster until they (hopefully) return to reasonable levels.  David has grown to the point that he now is the buyer for 26 local lobstermen, plus his own catch.  With the addition of his facility to the area, it is also much easier for trucks with bait to get in and out.  As a result, the lobster business is growing.  And in a town of 1300 people, 26 lobster crews mean a lot of families have a decent living because of the persistence of those who started fishing them twenty years ago.

     Back out on the boat, the men hit a snag.  Literally a snag.  Another lobstering crew has dropped a trap line atop one of the Warriors, and the ropes are coming up in a big tangle.

    There is a lot of gear that goes into doing this job, and none of it is cheap.  David spends upwards of $30,000 a year just on rope.  It is a special rope that sinks so that passing whales don't become entangled, potentially damaging themselves and the traps.

     But this isn't these guy's first rodeo.  Soon their line, lying beneath the other line, is cut and spliced and the other crew's trap line is returned to the ocean floor.

     Their whole line is moved away from the spot, hopefully solving the problem.

     A couple of days ago we saw that the United States border in this area was not clearly defined for many years.  Well, out here on these waters there is about 100 square miles of water that are still contested with Canada.  As a result, crews from both countries fish this particular area.  Here is a Canadian lobster crew moving through the area.

     One has to hope that the other crews all operate as cleanly as these guys.  All that bait that is put in the traps serves as food for the lobster - much like a farmer fertilizes his fields.  The field is fertile with lobster because the men work it in a manner that makes it sustainable - a big deal in an area that saw much of its valuable fish stocks wiped out with overfishing.

     546 traps later, the job for today is done.  This is a bit over half of David's traps - they will be returning tomorrow to finish the job.

     We head back toward land and watch the fog disappear as soon as it reaches land.  It really is quite pretty.

     As we head back toward Moose Island, we pass the lighthouse that David uses as his company logo.

     The crew puts the lobster into the containers they will be in when they go in the tanks back at the fishery.

     With the big commercial pier out of commission since its collapse, we have to take the catch to another old pier where a small crane hoists the pallet up.  The crates are then loaded in a pickup truck and driven back across the island to the fishery.

     On the way back the bins are washed down and the boat prepared for tomorrow's run.  It is now after five o'clock - three am will be here again soon.

     The boat is anchored offshore and a dingy picks the men up.

     The usual dingy captain got here late today - but he shows up to help weigh the lobster and pack them in the storage tanks.

     11 year old Lane's mother is the book keeper here, and he is always in the middle of things.  He really is a proficient navigator of the small boats.  Last week he tore up slips of paper and wrote out "pay-checks" for $10000000.  He signed them and gave them to the men.  Later, when the men were standing around and he saw David pulling in, he shouted that they better get to work or he was going to take their "paychecks" back.

     The crew is tired, but the job isn't done until everything is weighed, recorded and stored.  

     In about eight hours, they will meet back here and do it all over again.  

     From here the lobster head south and into the main fish markets.  David has purchased a refrigerated truck so he can make some smaller deliveries himself.

          Jason was a big help during my stay in Eastport - he let me use his extra bedroom and his wi-fi for almost a full week.  

     I have never eaten lobster before, so he cooked a couple up.

     Lobster that were swimming in the ocean a few hours ago -  if you like lobster it doesn't get better than that.

     Last year a local woman was diagnosed with cancer, so Jason and a bunch of the local fishermen did a calendar as a fundraiser.

     What do you think ladies?  I think it's a pretty scary sight - a bunch of salty dogs cavorting about lobster traps in their britches.  I forgot to ask Jason which "month" he was.

     Which brings us to today's "Faces in the Crowd. "  This is one of Jason's dogs charging back up the hill after a swim in the bay.  

     And today's parting shot - a "no hunting" sign in the Eastport cemetery?

     There must be a medical school somewhere close by . . . 

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Have a great day !!


  1. Thanks for a great story about some great people. We live in a very special place. come back soon!

  2. Great set of photos! I enjoy the "No Hunting" sign in the cemetery.

  3. I'm typing my comments while watching the lobster boats right in front of my rental cottage in Eastport...decided I wanted to know more about what lobster fishing is all about. Your wonderful article and photos were just what I was looking for! Thank you and good luck on your journey.