A day on the lobster boat
In waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine
By Brian Snyder
The instructions were: “Meet my sternman, and friend, Rob at 4:45am at the fish pier in Portland, Maine. From there, you two will catch a ride on another boat out to join me on the Wild Irish Rose, somewhere among the islands off coast.”
Lobsterman Steve Train owns the the Wild Irish Rose, and had some engine problems that morning. Rob was running late. But Steve guided me to his brother’s boat at a different pier. We picked up Rob and were out to the Wild Irish Rose soon enough.
Steve Train started lobstering with his brother when they were kids, then worked on a variety of boats throughout high school and college. In 1989, while he was still in college, he bought his first boat. He jokingly calls lobstering a “disease.” His father lobstered into the 1960’s, stopped, but started again in the 1990’s. Steve’s brother bought his first boat in 1992, his first year out of college. Both of Steve’s daughters, twelve and sixteen years old, have lobstered with him, the elder daughter all summer until field hockey started.
When I boarded the Wild Irish Rose the back deck was filled with lobster traps. Trusting that the engine problems were under control, Steve guided his boat some 10 miles off shore, into the waters off Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Rob, the sternman, quietly used that time as the sun rose above the horizon to put lines on the traps, prepare the bait for later in the day and get the deck in order. It would soon be very apparent that having everything ready would be a key to hauling traps later that day.
Rob normally works as a fisherman himself, running a dragger, fishing with nets for ground fish and shrimp. But prices for those fish are low in the summer, so he works on Steve’s lobster boat instead. Rob also works for the state of Maine in the spring and fall, towing a net so scientists can count fish populations.
After dropping the lines of lobster traps into the ocean, aiming for places on the underwater topography that Steve thought would be places likely to catch lobster, we set off to find the first of the 20 or so lines of lobster traps Steve and Rob would haul that day. Steve would return to those traps no sooner than five days from now.
Hauling a line of lobster traps goes like this: find the buoy making the line of traps (there’s a buoy on each end of the line). Each lobsterman has a differently colored buoy and Steve’s are orange with a blue stripe. Steve records where he drops each line, making returning to them easy. But he also says he knows exactly where all his traps are without looking at the notes. Once the line is located, Steve starts on one end, pulling the buoy out of the water and hooking the attached line to a winch. Soon, the first trap on the line has been winched up from the bottom of the ocean to the side of the boat. Steve pulls it onto a rail on the side of the boat, opens it, and begins sorting the lobsters inside. Rob joins him in sorting lobsters, and also re-baits the trap. Steve checks the size of each lobster in the trap — those that are too small are thrown back. Then he checks that there are no eggs on the lobster’s tail. If there are even one or two or if its been marked as once having had eggs — back into the water it goes. The result is that only a fraction of the lobsters caught are kept. Once the trap is emptied and rebaited, Rob positions it on the deck to go back into the water. The two men do all this quickly. One trap is done just as the next one on the line is pulled out of the water. Once all of the traps on that particular line are sitting on the boat deck, they are dropped back into the water to catch more lobsters.
This is repeated over and over and over. While Steve navigates to the next buoy and the next line of traps, Rob puts rubber bands on the claws of the lobsters they kept and lines up more bait. He just finishes that when the next line of traps starts coming in. Buoy up, rope on winch, first trap on the rail, sort lobsters, rebait, position trap on boat deck, next trap up, repeat, repeat, repeat.
Over the course of the day, Steve and Rob hauled 366 traps. Sometimes there were as many as sixteen traps on a line, others as few as six. They never took a break, not even to stop for lunch. They worked efficiently and methodically together, country music on the radio and a good natured banter back and forth. It was after 3pm before we headed back to the port in Portland. That day’s lobsters they delivered to the wholesaler came in around 600 pounds – which Steve described as a good day.