LOBSTERMEN AND RIVER RATS: THE LIFE AQUATIC
Lobsters are fished in coastal waters using cage-like traps commonly known as pots. The pots are set in the water from the back of a lobster boat in connected trawls, with an buoy on each end of the trawl. The pots, which are baited with fish in a mesh bag, are weighted with three to five bricks or heavy metal plates apiece, and settle quickly to the bottom of the ocean as soon as they are deployed. They are normally left to fish for a short period, which varies with the numbers of lobsters, and pulled out to check and rebait on a rotating basis.
Lobstermen who fish in shallow waters set trawls of eight to ten pots, each pot being about 3 feet long, 2 feet wide, and a little more than 1 foot tall. Shallow water lobstermen will set anywhere from a few hundred pots to around a thousand, in trawls of eight to ten pots each. Each trawl gets checked every three to seven days during the active part of the fishing season (the “run”.) These lobstermen typically run 20'-40' boats, operated by one captain (who is usually the owner of the boat) and one sternman, and they never sleep on the water.
Offshore lobstering works on a larger scale and is more intense, as offshore trips take three to six days. The boats are somewhat larger, and are crewed by anywhere from two to five men. The pots themselves are about one and a half times as big as shallow-water pots, and are almost always weighted with four or five bricks. They are set in trawls of 25-50 pots, and checked every few weeks.
Offshore lobstermen sometimes refer to their shallow-water counterparts as “river rats”.
I am a river rat.
KITCHENS AND PARLORS
Most lobster pots are fairly simple cages with two chambers. The outer chamber has two plastic or woven cord entrance funnels, through which the sealife enters easily but has a little more difficulty escaping from. This chamber is called the “kitchen” because it is where the lobster prepares his meal. It is separated from the second chamber, the “parlor”, by a woven funnel that is very easy to enter, but almost impossible to get out of. This is almost perfect lobster psychology.
The startle response of a lobster is to find the nearest hole or crevice and scoot backwards into it as far as it can go. This almost always works in natural surroundings – if the crevice is small, the lobster is left wedged into it with its dexterous claws facing the enemy, and if the crevice is open-ended the lobster emerges into open space and continues to scoot away, with a handy rock or other obstacle between it and its attacker. Lobsters have an amazing, and sometimes rather inconvenient, instinctive awareness of available retreat holes no matter where they are. When finding an empty pot, a lobster will climb in and happily tear into his meal, sitting in the funnel and pulling chunks of fish out of the mesh bag hanging conveniently between kitchen and parlor. But if threatened by any other creature, the lobster will almost always brandish its claws and back into the funnel at full speed.
Escape panels are built in the parlor section to allow undersized lobsters (“shorts”) to escape, but for regulation-sized bugs there is nowhere to go. This can, of course, lead to rather intense situations, especially when other creatures like sand sharks and blackfish accidentally enter the parlor, and if a lobsterman does not check his trawls regularly he is likely to find one fat fish instead of four or five lobsters. Trawls that are left for too long almost never produce lobsters, but can be full of crabs, fish and other beasties. This can happen because of a lobsterman’s laziness, or because a trawl gets lost. Especially in shallow waters, the fishing grounds are frequently used by barges, tankers and recreational boaters, all of which have an annoying tendency to run straight over lobster buoys, slicing the ropes more often than you would think.
Somewhat less frequently, ropes can be cut by other lobstermen. Although the lobstering community is tightly knit, it is also highly competitive, and it is not uncommon for lobstermen to assume that poor catches are the result of enemy action, and occasionally they take revenge by carefully cutting other lobstermen’s ropes or simply pulling their trawls and stealing the catch.
And you thought piracy was gone from the world.
GHOST PANELS AND NONSTAINLESS, UNCOATED, FERROUS METAL CLIPS
Unmarked trawls, whether they are accidental or intentional, are known as ghost trawls, and unless the lobsterman records the exact location of a ghost trawl it can easily be lost forever. Most lobstermen lose a few trawls every season. In earlier times this did not seriously threaten the lobster population, as lobster pots were made entirely of biodegradable materials. The old pots were made of wooden laths, spaced so that short lobsters could easily slip out, and fastened together with natural rope. These pots, however, required almost constant maintenance work, and eventually they were phased out in favor of PVC-coated metal cage pots. American lobstermen have not used the old wooden pots since the mid-Nineties at the latest, although they may still be used in other countries – I have tried to verify this, but found no evidence one way or another.
As the new pots are practically immune to the ravages of time, the US Environmental Protection Agency regulates lobster pot construction very strictly to prevent ghost trawls from becoming permanent deathtraps.
At least one escape vent measuring 1 15/16 inches by 5 3/4 inches must be built into every pot’s parlor section, so that “short” lobsters can easily escape from the pot. In addition, all non-wooden pots must have at least one “ghost panel”. This is a panel at least 3 inches tall and 5 across, made of or secured by a biodegradable material such as cotton or sisal twine, wood lath, or – most commonly – untreated metal clips that are designed to rust away after a certain period. It is also found in the parlor section.
Other laws regulate the marking of lobster pots, so that lobstermen can be held accountable for the many questionable practices they sometimes engage in. Every lobsterman has an allocation for a set number of pots, and may set no more than that number in any season. Every pot must be marked with a metal tag bearing the lobsterman’s name, the name of his boat and his lobstering license number. This tag is usually fixed in the center of the bridge between parlor and kitchen, right where the bait bags are hung.
Each pot must furthermore be marked every year with a plastic ring showing the current year, the fisherman’s license number, and a number identifying that particular pot. Every lobsterman receives a set number of these rings before the spring season begins, and must affix them to all the pots he has set in the water by one month after opening day. These rings are issued in a different colour each year and may or may not be removed at the end of the season.
Each lobsterman’s buoys are marked in a unique colour or sequence of colours. They are also branded with the lobsterman’s license number. A buoy with the same markings must be affixed to the top of the lobster boat at all times.
A LOBSTER, OR SHARK, IN EVERY POT
“What else do you find in those pots?” is the question everybody asks me, so I will provide a short list of things I have found in lobster pots in Long Island Sound:
Category One – Lobsters. This includes keepers, eggers, shorts, peanuts, softshells, rags, crusties, culls, torpedoes, shammalammas and monster claws. Their shells may be spotless, rotten, or encrusted with barnacles. In the Sound, they range from tiny things the size of crayfish to monsters of about four pounds, but the latter is very, very rare in these parts. Standard size is about a pound and a half. I have yet to see an all-blue lobster, but I did get one with one blue claw. Claw growth in lobsters can be very interesting due to faulty regeneration, and I have seen all variations of claw oddities, including a lobster that had one tiny nonfunctional claw growing out of the back side of its crusher claw.
Category Two – Saleable fish and other creatures. Blackfish, sea bass, porgies, and winkles. A small but economically important category for the captain.
Category Three – Pests and Predators. Sandsharks, squid, squid eggs, winkle eggs, sculpins, sea robins, herring, bunker, monkfish, Japanese flatfish, skates, rays, ray eggs, mantis shrimp, jellyfish (quite painful), starfish, sandfleas, snails, clams, disgusting little mudworms, and crabs – hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, brown crabs, blue crabs, and the most common occupant of all lobster pots, spider crabs. The latter are a major nuisance, ranging from tiny critters that almost fall through the bars of the pot to things two feet across that shouldn’t even fit into a pot. Supposedly the French eat them, but Americans don’t, which is a shame because we usually catch far more spiders than lobsters.
Category Four – Human Refuse. I’m still waiting to find somebody’s foot in a pot, but I have seen more than enough evidence of human life, mostly in the form of candy wrappers, plastic bags, plastic cups and fishing line and tackle. Words cannot express how disgusting I find this.
Category Four, along with the other, invisible things we put in our oceans, is the real reason there may soon be no more “river rat” lobstermen. In a recent class action suit brought by Connecticut lobstermen against a group of pesticide manufacturers, the court ruled that the pesticide companies were directly responsible for the Long Island Sound lobster die-off of 1999, in which bug populations plummeted catastrophically and have never recovered. Exact damages awarded to the lobstermen have yet to be determined, but will probably be in the range of fifty to eighty million dollars – this is considered fair compensation for the number of legally fishable lobsters lost to the lobstermen since 1999.
These damages are, however, only the tip of the iceberg, as legal lobsters caught in the Sound represent only a small segment of the total lobster population. Damages to this population and the fish that depend on them as a food source, along with the innumerable other species that have been decimated by the same pesticides but are not economically significant enough to warrant legal representation, will never be determined or paid.
It is worth noting that, contrary to what I once thought, the Sound’s lobster population was actually increasing during the latter half of the Nineties, right up to the die-off. There was a time when the bugs were threatened by overfishing, but that danger was averted long ago by the EPA increasing the gauge size for legal lobsters, and the years before the 1999 die-off were, in fact, some of the best years in recent memory for lobsters and lobstermen. I would caution readers against assuming that the present crisis is equally surmountable.