The History of the Lobster
Centuries ago in North America, lobsters were so plentiful that Native Americans used them to fertilize their fields and to bait their hooks for fishing. In colonial times, lobsters were considered “food for the poor.” They were harvested from tidal pools and served to children, to prisoners, and to indentured servants, who exchanged their passage to America for seven years of service to their sponsors. In Massachusetts, some of the servants became so tired of eating lobster that they had it put into their contracts they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week.
Until the early 1800s, catching lobsters was done by gathering them by hand along the shoreline. Lobstering as a trap fishery came into existence in Maine around 1850. Today Maine is the largest lobster-producing state in the nation.
The first lobster pound appeared on Vinalhaven Island in 1875 and others quickly followed. Lobster pounds work by keeping lobsters in tanks with sea water passing freely through them. The first lobster pound was in a deep tidal creek, but today they are more common on docks along the harbor’s edge. Using the pound, dealers can wait for the price of lobster to increase or allow a newly-molted lobster time to harden its shell.
In response to a growing demand for lobster, lobsters were canned beginning in 1836. The Burnham & Morrill Company was one of the early canneries in existence in Maine. Now primarily in the baked bean business, B&M was canning lobsters and sending them to all parts of the world, according to an 1880 history of Cumberland County, Maine. Canning the lobsters overcame some of the difficulties associated with shipping live lobsters, and by the second half of the 19th century the value of canned lobster had surpassed that of live lobster.
The canneries were so efficient at processing the lobsters that they were soon forced to work with smaller lobsters. It was reported that In 1860, four to five pound lobsters were considered small and the two pound lobsters were being discarded as not worth the effort to pick the meat for canning. Only twenty years later, the canneries were stuffing meat from half-pound lobsters into the tins for processing.
During World War II lobster was considered a delicacy, and consequently was not rationed. Thus lobster meat filled the increasing demand for protein-rich food. People could afford to buy lobster because of the boom of the war-time economy. Although there was a decline in lobster purchases immediately after the war, lobster consumption rapidly rebounded. In the years between 1950 and 1969, lobster consumed per person increased from .585 pounds (live weight) to just about one pound. At the same time the cost of lobster rose faster than the national inflation rate, increasing profits for lobstermen and thereby encouraging more people to join the industry.
As with all fisheries, individual states manage lobster fishing within their three-mile boundaries. In Maine, this job is done by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Since it is impossible to tell the difference between lobsters caught near shore and offshore, as they look exactly the same when they are loaded at the wharf, it is important that interstate and federal regulations complement each other. An organization called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, formed in 1942, helps to do this. A compact of 15 eastern seaboard states, the Commission has three representatives from each state. These people include the Director of the state’s marine resources management agency, a state legislator, and a fisheries representative appointed by the Governor. The member states are responsible for implementing the Commission Plan. The federal partners in lobster management are also part of the Commission process and work to complement the states efforts. Through the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service, federal regulations are adopted for lobster harvesting between three and 200 miles from shore, the United States’ “economic zone”.
All states and the federal government share a minimum legal size, 3 1/4 inches carapace-length–from the eye socket to the beginning of the tail. A lobster caught at this size weighs about 1 1/4 lb. The minimum size for legal lobsters was increased in 1988 after scientists persuaded the lobstermen that at the size lobsters were being harvested, 90% of all lobsters were being captured before they’d had a chance to reproduce even once. They argued that only ten percent of the population could not continue to produce enough baby lobsters to keep the industry going for many more years. Nearly 20 years later, in hindsight this was an incredibly wise decision. The Maine lobster population continues to flourish.
The scientists had hoped to increase the minimum to a 3 5/16 inch carapace-length, when closer to 50% of the females would be old enough to reproduce. However, lobstermen protested, and the U.S. regulators settled for 3 1/4 inches. (Canada has an even lower minimum size of 3 3/16 inches. These may not be imported into the United States.)
By law, any egg-bearing females must be released. Some female lobsters are “V-notched,” that is, a triangular slice is cut from a tail flipper. This badge of motherhood is meant to keep them off the dinner table and in the breeding pool. Cutting the V-notch is a voluntary action on the part of conservation-minded lobstermen and the Department of Marine Resources. At the other end of the spectrum are lobster harvesters who scrub off the eggs from a female and remove any traces with bleach. Conscientious lobstermen and marine police do not look kindly on these people.
Maine imposes a maximum legal size of 5 inches carapace-length so all our biggest breeders, which may produce 100,000 eggs rather than the average 10,000 eggs, can stay in the population and continue to add to the lobster stock yearly.
Maine lobstermen have traditionally protected their share of the resource through lobstering territories. These territories are completely unofficial. There is absolutely no law involved whatsoever. In any port, the lobstermen have an informal, often unspoken agreement about where each member of the fishing community may lay his traps. All the members of one community even lay their strings of traps in one direction, such as north to south, so they don’t tangle their lines in someone else’s gear.
Youngsters who want to enter the fishery may start with a few traps or work as a “sternman,” baiting traps and carting gear, for one of the established fishermen. Eventually he or she will be allowed to take over his or her own territory after a suitable apprenticeship. Should a newcomer “from away” try to enter the game, he may at first find his gear has been moved or a knot tied into his buoy line. If he doesn’t get the hint, his traps will likely be cut from the buoy line and be lost. (One string of traps may easily link 10 traps costing $80 each.)
The isolated fishing community of Monhegan Island, 10 1/2 miles off the coast of Maine, offers an extreme example. Here 17 lobstermen have exclusive rights (by a 1998 law) to a two-mile radius of ocean around this rock-bound island. The families of Monhegan Island persuaded the state to pass a law limiting lobstering off the island from December 1 until June 25.
The island is closed to lobstering (and open to tourism) the remainder of the year. All the lobster boats fish for lobster throughout the worst weather and highest lobster prices of the year, generally from December through May. Lobstermen on the island feel that their limited fishing season gives the lobster population a break from being fished during the summer when molting and breeding are at their peak. Summer and fall are when lobstering around the rest of the New England coast is at its peak.
In recent years demand for Maine lobster has continued to expand. With the introduction of Federal Express and guaranteed overnight shipping, more and more consumers throughout the country and around the world have the opportunity to experience the sweet, succulent taste of fresh Maine lobster.
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