For the last year, I’ve been fishing Long Island Sound. This is something I am both proud and ashamed of. My sole reason for taking the job was that I needed money and couldn’t find anything else, but it’s had repercussions on my personal and spiritual life. Being a lobsterman, or any kind of fisherman, is not your typical nine-to-five. It’s a way of life. It’s living under the influence of tides and weather, things that most of humanity either ignores or works around.
Being the Sort of Person Who Imagines Things, I like to imagine that I am becoming a creature of the sea myself. I have absorbed the smell of fish, to the point where I can hardly smell fish at all. You can smell it in my hair even after I’ve had a long, thorough shower, and you can smell it in my work clothes even after multiple washings.
The rhythms of my life have changed, as well. A lobsterman is pretty much guaranteed to be the first person up in his neighbourhood, every morning. When I ride my bike down to the dock, the streets are deserted. And I have no real daily or weekly schedule. We fish when we need to, for as long as we need to, as long as the lobsters are running. Our routine is ordained by lobsters, the Moon and the wind.
I love living like this. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and it doesn’t pay very well. But of all the many jobs I’ve had, I think this is one of the best. It satisfies almost every criterion that I have for considering a job a good one. It puts me in a natural, dynamic environment, where I can feel the rhythms of the Earth’s life, away from humans and surrounded by more natural animals. It provides me with constant challenges, and gives me the satisfaction of performing a real service. I provide food for people. I am unbelievably proud of that.
I used to be a farmer. It’s the same feeling, whether you’re growing food or hunting it. Other people manage people, make TV shows, move people’s furniture from one house to another. These are fine jobs, and I’ve done them all in the past. But a farmer or a fisherman has the single most important job in the world - getting food.
Being a lobsterman is better, though, if you like a job that challenges you physically. You spend the whole day scrambling after runaway pots, tying lines with your ass hanging over the back of the boat, untangling snarled trawls, and running back and forth to keep everything going. There’s a lot of lifting. There are ropes to catch and lobsters to band and bait bags to fill and the occasional mechanical problem to keep you thinking. Every day I work, I go to sleep feeling the day’s work in my entire body. It’s a good sort of exhaustion.
But the best part is just being out on the water. Although Long Island Sound is hardly the wild heart of the sea, there is enough weather and wildlife to provide the fisherman with a dazzling variety of experiences. In our pots I’ve seen squid eggs spider crabs brown crabs horseshoe crabs hermit crabs dogfish bluefish sculpins sea robins mantis shrimp rays skates jellyfish strands kelp periwinkles bass clams and lobsters. I’ve been knocked around by the wind and the waves, and I’ve seen waves washing right over the deck while we bounced around like a toy boat in a four-year-old’s bathtub game. I’ve fished in fog and in rain and in the sun. On a mostly cloudy day, you can see the sun breaking through clouds and lighting up the water from a mile off, and it comes moving towards you slowly and the only thing you can think is that bit in Genesis about God moving over the face of the waters doesn’t HALF say it.
This is why I like my job.
But I am ashamed, as well. I’m ashamed because Long Island Sound is not what it used to be. I’m ashamed because we have been overfishing the waters of the world for far too long, without a care for the future of our species or any other. And we are finally beginning to see the consequences. We see them everywhere. Ask any fisherman, anywhere in the world, how his recent catches compare to those of his childhood. It will put a damper on the conversation, to say the least.
The History of Lobstering in a Nutshell:
250 years ago, you could pick up lobsters on the shore. You would wade through the surf for a few minutes, scoop up as many bugs as your basket could hold, and bring them home to cook.
200 years ago, before canning was invented, there were four-foot lobsters in Long Island Sound, and fishermen would catch the bugs with hoop nets and sell them in the markets to people who couldn’t afford real fish.
150 years ago, the first lobster canneries were built. Within a few years, there were 18 lobster canneries in the US, and dozens of fishermen began to fish for lobsters full-time. The wooden lobster pot was invented right around this time, and there was never any lack of lobsters.
20 years ago, professional lobstermen would measure their catches in baskets per trawl. The lobsters weren’t four feet long, but they would often weigh several pounds. The lobstermen would fill their boats’ holding tanks in a few hours of hard work, and be home before lunch.
Last winter, we were happy if we came home with five totes of lobsters after working all day, and the overwhelming majority of the catch was just over the minimum legal size.
This season is just starting. So far we’ve seen nothing but minimum-size keepers. Yesterday we came home with two totes. That’s roughly a hundred pounds of lobster. We spent the whole day on the water. Trawl after trawl came up empty. Again and again we would pounce on a single lobster, only to find that it had eggs or was just under the minimum size.
We throw these back. Modern lobstermen are aware that there aren’t many lobsters left, and they take pains to ensure that there will be future generations. Lobster pots do not harm the animals they catch, and they are required to have escape vents that “short” lobsters can easily use to escape (after having a nice, free meal). The truth is that even a full-grown lobster can wriggle through these vents with a little effort, and a few of them do get away. If short lobsters are still in the pots, we just throw them back with no harm done - we gauge all the bugs to make sure. Egg-bearing females are also released. And as far as I can tell, nobody cheats. Even the most self-centered lobsterman realises that the future of the industry depends on there actually being lobsters to catch. Just in case anybody gets greedy, the EPA does random checks on our catches. Of course, nobody likes being checked up on by the government, so the EPA guy doesn’t get invited to the lobstermen’s parties, but really we all get along. Mostly the lobstermen steal from each other more often than they cheat the regulations.
Still, there’s a very good chance that all this worry over the future of lobsters has come too late, and doesn’t go far enough. Some lobstermen will admit that the only way to make sure the lobsters can bounce back is if the government tightens up the regulations and decreases every lobsterman’s allocation. This has already been done in Maine. Other states don’t depend on the lobster industry as much as Maine does, so it hasn’t happened there yet. It’s going to have to happen. The lobstermen won’t do it voluntarily.
The problem is that lobstering is not very profitable. I know this may be hard to believe, since lobster is one of the most expensive meats you can buy, but lobstermen don’t make a lot of money. Nobody is going to voluntarily fish less than he is allowed to and take another hit to his profits. When you’re finding it hard to pay your daycare bills, you have no medical insurance and there are a dozen things on the boat that need to be replaced, you don’t volunteer to make even less money. You do what you have to, and hope that things will work out. None of the old-time lobstermen have the option of looking for another job. They’ve been doing this all their lives, and it’s the only thing they know.
And me? Technically, I have that option. Realistically, the only jobs I could probably get right now would be the kind of job that kills your spirit through constant attrition. I did those jobs for far too long, and I was miserable. I can’t go back to them. I want to be out on the water, riding the waves and the wind. So, despite the fact that the future of the industry is uncertain, and despite my wife’s constant complaints that the house smells like fish, I am going to stick with this for as long as I can. I will continue to be proud and ashamed, and do whatever I can to help the lobster populations rebound so that I can be more proud and less ashamed.
(CUE DRAMATIC THEME MUSIC BY HOWARD SHORE AND LISA GERRARD)