Enter the Lobster Boat

By Russell Kingman / Photography By Russell Kingman | December 16, 2014
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man on lobster boat stares out at the ocean

I was on the dock, about to drag a tote of fish into the building, when a boat pulled up to get some fuel. I threw the boat a line, and the captain, Dave Mallowes, secured it to a cleat. He asked, “Ya workin’ every day?”

I thought for a second. Ernie, Shan and I had been fishing the weirs, and building them or taking them apart, almost every day since last March. It was now late August. We hadn’t been catching much fish since July, and yet we were still at it; still fishing the weirs off the coast of Chatham. We had an epic run and we were still 100% involved in our fishery. I said to Dave, “Yep, every day.”

“Wanna work on a lobster boat?”

I was stunned. I had never once considered working in another fishery. I had no experience anywhere else, but I knew I had just been asked to do something special, so I said yes.

We agreed Monday would be my first trip. I talked it over with Ernie and he thought I should take the job. I was concerned about leaving him and Shan with too much work and I didn’t want to leave them in a lurch. Still, Ernie knew I needed the job, and told me to go for it. When I wasn’t out on the lobster boat, I could still help take gear out of the water.

Captain Dave expected me to arrive at the pier, ready to go, at 3:50 a.m. I set my alarm clock for 2:00 a.m. to be sure I was prepared. The trip would be anywhere from twelve to sixteen hours. You have to pack some food, water and some dry clothes. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well because I was up all night thinking about it. I was going offshore!

I had heard some stories about offshore fishing. I had sailed in two hurricanes in my life, hundreds of miles offshore, and knew what the ocean could become. I had been told stories about men getting caught up in lines, dragged overboard, never to be seen again. I had heard about boats sinking, the crew never found. All these images cycled through my mind’s eye. No, I didn’t sleep well.

At 1:00 a.m. I gave up and got out of bed. I made some coffee and looked at the wind and weather reports for offshore. We were going about 50 miles off the Cape. You can’t see land, you’re in the middle of the sea. There’s nothing else. The lobster boat has no stern, and it’s wide open. It would be easy, in rough seas, to fall off. I don’t know if you’d be chewed up by the propeller or just drowned. Thankfully, the reports called for a calm sea.

Driving to the dock, I was full of trepidation. I would be fishing with Dave and Mark, neither of whom I knew, and I didn’t know how I’d do. I grabbed my gear and my lunch and walked out to the end of the pier in the quiet of the night. I stowed my stuff down below, and we set out for a day of lobstering.

As we motored out of Stage Harbor, in Chatham, I stood on the open deck and watched the lights on shore slowly fade away into the darkness. It doesn’t take long to lose sight of land, and there were hours and hours of labor ahead.

My job was to bait the bags, and band the lobster claws. The bait is dead herring and fermenting fish skins, and there is no glamour in this task. The smell is overwhelming, like a dead dog that has rolled in dead fish. I can’t begin to adequately describe the smell of ammonia and funk that emanates from the bait. Suffice it to say, it is an undesirable task, especially at four o’clock in the morning. Eventually, you get used to the stench. Sort of.

I was lucky. The first day out we had relatively calm seas, and it makes everything so much easier. We arrived at our lobster traps and began the process of fishing them. Lobsters piled up on the banding table in front of me, and much to my chagrin, each was intent on crushing my fingers with its powerful claws. Lobsters have a few good moves—they are quick and smart, and look for any opportunity to latch on to the hands that are trying to band them. You certainly can’t blame them.

I was going along, banding as best I could, when one wily three pounder threw a roundhouse with its claw and clamped firmly down on my thumb. I yelled, not knowing what to do. That lobster was not letting go, slowly crushing my thumb with increasing strength. Mark and Dave turned around to see the lobster hanging from my hand and me in a state of horror and confusion. They quickly turned away to conceal their ever-widening grins, and I could tell they were thinking, “This is wonderful. The new guy has been bitten!” Unfortunately, this occurred three more times during the day.

There is a learning curve to banding lobsters; you get know their moves, the way they attack, and what to do to stay ahead of them. On our way home Dave informed me that I had not broken the record. Another guy was bitten seven times in one day; I only racked up four clampdowns. It was clear that I would have to improve my technique, or suffer the consequences.

Lobsters are remarkable feats of evolution. They are like ancient gladiators, with spikes on their elbows and head. Their eyes look like high tech camera lenses, and their colors are quite beautiful, varying from burnt browns to slate blues, hot-ball reds and traffic cone oranges. They are armor-coated fighters with two distinct claws: one is for crushing, the other for ripping and tearing. These guys are fearless warriors who march across the ocean floor, looking for food. There must be armies of them down there, in the depths of the sea.

Lobsters are an iconic seafood dish throughout New England. Everybody wants lobster. Lobster ravioli, lobster bisque, baked stuffed lobster, boiled lobster, lobster rolls, lobster in a vodka cream sauce over pasta, lobster quesadillas, lobster and steak, lobster pizza, fried lobster tails…lobster everything! It always seems celebratory, like champagne, and it’s always a special night out when you decide to get a lobster.

The demand for these crustaceans has driven the price up, but in my opinion, the labor involved in catching lobster warrants every penny per pound. It is a very demanding fishery. Our trips have gone on as long as sixteen hours just to bring in a day’s catch. We fish as many as 300 traps during a day, and each trap weighs about 120 pounds. Mark has the daunting task of lifting all these traps and organizing them on the stern of the boat, so we can send them back into the sea with new bait. It is a grueling, repetitious act of pulling traps out of the depths of the sea, 50 miles off the coast, in all kinds of weather conditions. Some sets, or series of traps, yield almost nothing, while other sets bring in 100 pounds of lobster. The banding and baiting requires 14 hours of standing on a rocking, lurching boat, moving around crates of bait that weigh up to 200 pounds, and crates of lobsters. There’s a lot of heavy lifting. You have to move fast to keep up with the pace of bringing these traps and lobsters on board. Imagine carrying the lobster trap, weighted with cement blocks, across the deck in a lurching, pounding sea. You lose your balance. You fall and bash your knees, and wrench your back at the same time. It’s hard work, and dangerous work, and the boat is always moving beneath your feet. Just balancing for 14 hours is exhausting. If only the boat would stop moving and rolling, but it doesn’t. When the wind picks up, you’re in for a long, rocky day.

The captain endures the cost of operating the boat and the potential losses of traps that get caught on a rocky bottom. Draggers can trawl over a set of lobster traps and destroy them. We have lost a dozen traps in the last month, which is about $1500 worth of gear, not to mention the time spent trying to retrieve these lost traps. Fuel for each trip runs about $300. There’s boat maintenance, costly engine repairs, and a host of materials required for each journey. The investment in permits and gear is astronomical. Boats are required to have life rafts and survival suits, and navigation equipment is costly, and necessary. The entire operation is complex and requires a master like Dave to organize and orchestrate the fishery. From the land, it seems as if lobsters just appear in a fish market, but to the fisherman, lobsters are caught through hard labor, mortal risk, and high overhead. It’s a rewarding but hard way of life. Every penny is earned.

These experiences on the ocean have inspired me to redouble my efforts to advocate for small fisheries. Most ports in New England see fleets disappearing. Small fisheries, like the lobster boat I work on, constitute close to 85% of all the fisheries in the world. They are a vital element to our local seaside economies and a necessary source of protein and nutrients for people everywhere. Regulations and quota systems, as well as the costs of operation, have been slowly putting the small fishery out of business over the past two decades.

Almost 90% of all the fish we eat in the United States is imported. That doesn’t make sense. We have a multitude of delicious species right here in our own waters. Some of the keys to the future of our seafood system are that we embrace locally caught fish, try new species, and pay the fisherman a fair price for his catch.

I’ve worked with Dave and Mark for a couple of months now, and I have learned how to survive on an offshore lobster boat. These men are highly skilled and tough individuals. They pursue their profession with an iron will amidst adverse weather conditions, fluctuating markets and the constant tightening of regulations and permitting. It has opened my eyes to a world that goes unseen on the land. Whenever I eat seafood, I think of the sacrifices the fisherman has made to bring delicious and nourishing fish to the table. Most fishermen are out on the sea year round, and the winter months are grueling.

I hope that when you buy fish, including lobster, you ask for a locally caught product. That is one sure way to support our local fishermen, and you’ll be getting the best, freshest fish available on the market.

Russell Kingman fishes the Eldredge family weirs in Nantucket Sound, helps run Cape Cod Community Supported Fishery, and is an independent wild shellfish harvester in Chatham.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at http://ediblecapecod.ediblecommunities.com/food-thought/enter-lobster-boat
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