The iconic lobster boats and traps that sprinkle the harbors up and down the New England coast have become a symbol of what it means to be from this part of the country. However, most are unfamiliar with the details that go on once these boats leave their moorings and set out for a day’s work. With lobsterfest in full swing at our Melrose restaurant, I decided to take a trip out on my father-in-law Ambie’s lobster boat, f/v Valerie Dawn, to get an up-close look at how this New England favorite ultimately ends up waiting for you in the lobster tank.
The day starts early for a local lobsterman (or woman!)- most are out and ready to start hauling just after the sun comes up. With the bait already on board, we met at the boat at 6am. Early November temperatures are not the ideal weather for an early morning harbor cruise, but the lobsters don’t seem to mind.
Skilled lobstermen have a well-honed understanding of the behaviors and patterns of the American lobster, although annual fluctuations in temperature and conditions can alter this behavior significantly. As a result, the livihood comes with a high degree of unpredictability. Because of this unpredictability, every lobsterman works a little differently. Variations in approach include fishing solo or using of a backman/ backmen, use of different bait, location of trap-setting, and time lapsed between hauls. As a result of these differences technique, a certain air of competition can always be found amongst the local lobstermen. At the same time, however, there is also a more general and over-arching understanding that they are all in it together. Although playful jabs may be exchanged down at the docks and over the radio, many of these fishermen sit down together over coffee at the local diner after the day’s haul is complete.
On our trip, we set out with a fish tote of cod racks (the leftovers after the fillets are taken off) already on board. Often the first stop for a daily trip is to pick up this bait, but we got a jump start on the day having loaded it the evening before. When it comes to bait, lobsters will eat pretty much anything but they are most attracted to fish with a high oil content, such as mackerel or tuna. We set out across the harbor and arrived at the first string (or collection of traps marked by a buoy at each end) in no time.
Traps–or pots– were originally made of wood but are now mostly wire. They all have net “heads” which are easy to enter but hard to exit. The lobster first goes in after the bait in the “kitchen” through the main head. Then, when it tries to get out, it lands in the “parlor.” Some traps have several kitchens and several parlors, and many are now equipped with biodegradable exit doors that eventually wear away on traps that have been lost or separated from their main lines.
A gaff is used to grab the main line of a set of traps. Some boats use a mechanical hauler to avoid the strain off hauling by hand. Once the traps are on board, they are lined up with the rope carefully coiled and lobsters that have made their way in the traps are measured. Size limits are based on the length of the carapace (body) of the lobster. Carapace length measured from rear of eye socket parallel to the center line of the bodyshell to the rear of the bodyshell. All lobsters measuring less than the minimum legal carapace length must be returned to the waters from which taken. All lobsters must be measured immediately upon bringing them on board. Current size limits for lobsters caught in the Gulf of Maine are those with a carapace between 3 1/4 and 5 inches.
Keepers are stored in a holding tank on board. Unlike most other seafood, lobsters must be kept alive until they are cooked. This is because the digestive enzymes in the animal will rapidly compromise and breakdown its meat shortly after it dies. They also must be banded because lobsters are known to be cannibalistic, especially in such close quarters.
About half way through our trip, we were surprised to haul a trap with a large female- she weight approximately 8 pounds! It’s hard to imagine how she was able to get in the trap given her size. As it turns out, she was a “seeder”- she was carrying eggs under her tail. Female lobsters can carry up to 20,000 eggs at a single time , of which about 20 lobsters will survive to be one month or older. Scientists estimate that only 2 of those lobsters must survive to egg-bearing maturity in order to maintain healthy population levels.
To give an accurate scale, we placed our female giant next to a market sized lobster in order to show just how impressive she was. Although determining the age of a lobster is an imprecise science, it’s fair to estimate that at this size, our large female was over 25 years old! The flipper on her tail that would normally be “V-Notched” was also missing, but was beginning to grow back in. V-Notching is a technique used to protect seeders and ensure the overall health of the species. Although regulations for keeping V-notched lobsters vary in different areas, it has overall been an effective method for ensuring that the egg bearing females have the chance to reproduce successfully over time.
If you sit down to treat yourself to a boiled or bake-stuffed lobster this holiday season, we hope that you take a minute to appreciate what went into getting that creature of the deep onto your plate. Personally, I am grateful to live in an area where fresh seafood is plentiful. I’m also very grateful for all the hard work that goes into getting that seafood into our local markets and restaurants.