On Friday I had the great fortune of being taken out lobstering in the Bay of Fundy by the men of the Ingalls family, descendants of the people who owned and lived on Hay Island. Our day started at 4 am, before the sunrise, as we made our way in the near-darkness to West Beach, where Russell Ingalls picked us up in his skiff and brought us to two boats. Russell’s boat, the Island Bound, had ferried us from Grand Manan to Kent Island on our first day, while the other boat, the Mearl Maid, belonged to his son Theron. The sky was dusky, colored by a gentle blush on the horizon that contrasted with the bright fluorescent light on the deck of the boat. We watched the sun rise as we left Kent Island behind, and all was calm and quiet except the churning of the boat engine and the calls of seabirds overhead.
Theron explained that the Mearl Maid was more than thirty years old, with a sturdy, fiberglass hull that is characteristic of lobster boats. The rectangular deck seemed vast, but the boat would feel much cozier later when it was stacked with lobster traps. Our mission was to help him pull up all of his traps, empty them of lobster, and bring them back to Seal Cove to be stored, because it was the end of the lobster season. In Canada, the season is limited to November through June, unlike in Maine, where it is year-round, though the most harvesting occurs in the summer. Maine and Canada have different approaches to managing the lobster industry, but it is the primary fishery of both regions because the groundfish fisheries have collapsed due to overharvest. Damon Gannon, Director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station, explained, “The lobster industry in Maine and Canada behaves as one market, because the economic factors that affect it on one side affect it on the other. Each side has its own business strategy, and view each other as competitors, but they are both in the same boat.” Lobster crosses the border in both directions, because Canada ships hardshell lobster to Maine, which in turn sells softshell (lobster shed in the summer) to Canada to be processed. Processed lobster from both regions and longer-lasting hardshell lobster are freighted as far as Tokyo in jumbo jets.
The fishing families of Grand Manan are largely removed from this distribution process, and sell the lobster that they catch to a middleman, who takes a large cut of the profits. Lobster is a unique fishery because the marketing and distribution is a high-tech multi-billion dollar industry, but the harvest itself is conducted on small boats owned by independent fishermen, as it was in the past. Theron is the fifth generation of lobstermen in his family, and knows where his grandfather and great-grandfather set their traps. He and his crew, two brothers named Amos and Jeremiah, cross the same frigid ocean and see the same dramatic cliffs and wooded islands as their forefathers. Lobstering itself has changed, of course, and modern boats are decked out with bigger engines, stronger hauling equipment, and the greater navigation capabilities of radar, sonar, and satellites than those of past lobstermen who used wooden traps.
I rode the Mearl Maid on a gorgeous, sunny day, but Theron and his crew have fished in all conditions, from the rainstorm of the day before to the freezing cold of January in New Brunswick. “It feels good to be dry,” Amos remarked as he caught a buoy and cranked a lever to lift the first trap out of the water. Before lobstering, I had assumed that under each buoy was a single trap, but the hauler brought up about eighteen in a row at each trawl. For the first set of traps, Liam, Tracey, Drew and I stood mesmerized as the crew hauled up traps, flung crabs and juvenile lobster overboard, hurled the empty traps in neat stacks on the deck, and sorted the lobster into plastic bins to be banded. Each man knew exactly where to be and what to do, and they worked fluidly and efficiently as a single unit.
After the second trap was hauled up, we helped to measure and band the lobsters to prevent them from attacking each other in the crowded bins. The metal bander had a 3 ¼ inch marker, the legal size limit in Canada, which we used to measure the lobster from its eye socket to the end of its first body segment. Theron revealed the extent of his trust in us when he explained that harvesting undersized lobster is punishable by heavy fines and even jail time, and we were all careful to throw the small ones back into the deep. The heavy metal banders were awkward in my small hands, and I managed to smack myself in the face with several rubber bands before figuring out how to stretch them onto the struggling lobsters’ claws.
The crustaceans were incredibly strong, and they challenged our inexperience by flexing their whole bodies and opening their claws, as if to say, “Come at me bro.” Lobsters are very agile underwater, and can shoot twenty-five feet in a second by using their powerful tails. While we think of them as mostly stationary animals (they are in fact stationary when they are packed into crates and tanks), scientists have tracked adults that migrate up to a hundred miles, and lobster larvae travel long distances via westward-flowing currents that carry them from the Canadian border to Southern Maine. The continued increase of the lobster stock despite levels of fishing that have caused collapse of the groundfish fishery is a mystery that may be partially explained by a shift in the natural oceanographic cycle. According to the “lobster larvae superhighway” hypothesis, currents are now transporting larvae from Canada and Downeast Maine south to the extensive nursery grounds that support as many as one lobster per square meter.
Management practices such as notching the tails of young females and throwing back the large “berried” females carrying thousands of eggs are also effective because the fishermen enforce them. “That’s future money,” Theron said as he pointed out the dark green eggs beneath the tail of a five pound female before throwing her back. Lobster fishing is often a family enterprise, so lobstermen are especially considerate of the long-term sustainability of their business for their children. That future may be threatened by climate change, because females require cold water to reproduce. Reduced egg recruitment won’t translate into fewer landings for several years, however, and fishermen continue to switch over to lobstering in the hopes of steady profits. The traps that we pulled up varied in their fullness, but we ended up with at least 500 lbs of lobster after hauling five trawls. When I asked Theron whether our haul was good or not, he said that he’d seen better, but that overall he wasn’t complaining.
Part of the reason that lobster are so plentiful has to do with the bags of herring bait hanging in each trap, the remains of which Amos dumped back into the ocean to the delight of the gulls that hovered overhead. The lobster fishery is sometimes compared to “ranching,” because fishermen are feeding the lobster with bait, and have killed off their natural predators by overharvesting groundfish. As in ranching, the lobsters that they harvest are only a small percentage of the ones that are fed, though this disparity is unintentional. Through underwater filming, scientists have discovered that, contrary to popular belief, lobsters move in and out of traps easily, feasting on herring and then exiting. The ones that are caught are only the unlucky individuals that happened to be inside when the trap was pulled.
I was disturbed by the thought that the plentitude of lobster, on which the New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine economies have come to depend after the collapse of the other fisheries, might be short lived. Lobster fishing is a hard life, involving long hours, taxing manual labor, and total dependence on the elements and on a variable natural resource. It also comes with the rewards of the freedom of cruising the water on your own boat, and the constant excitement of seeing what the ocean provides when you haul up a trap from its vast obscurity. The Ingalls family was incredibly knowledgeable and generous, and thanked us heartily for our help on the boat, when it was they who had given us so much. After a delicious meal of chowder, provided by Russell’s gracious wife Joan, we departed on the Island Bound just in time to catch the sunset over Grand Manan, laden with a crate of lobster for the next day’s dinner. Fresh lobster eaten outside in the afternoon light of summer is incomparably delicious, and knowing exactly where the food had come from only made it more satisfying.
Woodard, Colin. The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. Penguin, 2005.