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Going Lobstering

My first serious boyfriend introduced me to a treat I never forgot. A diver, he sometimes came across lobsters in the ocean off Fire Island. His mother steamed the three he found at a wreck off Ocean Beach, provided lots of melted butter and showed me how to use the tools she laid out to get every scrap of lobster meat clinging to the shell.

Since that time, things have gone downhill for local lobsters. Good harvests from Long Island Sound dwindled in the late 1990s. They found dead lobsters in traps and there were others that survived long enough to get in and out of the traps but died on the way to market. In the years since the worst year in 1999, there have been studies to find out what happened – scientists blamed the use of pesticides, shell disease and pollution. Temperature change and overharvesting were seen as contributing factors.
Back in 1999, the Sound’s temperature measured at the 72 degree F. range which is warmer than lobsters can tolerate. Scientists felt the warm water caused the lobsters to molt too early in the spring, making them candidates for disease. Locally, the Connecticut government shut down winter fishing to give lobsters a chance to come back and has reduced the number of traps lobstermen can put out. Connecticut also has a program for lobstermen to get paid to mark female lobsters and throw them back. In New York, you can renew your commercial lobster permit but no new commercial permits for lobster are being issued.

The population of lobsters north of Cape Cod is thriving. In Maine more lobsters are being taken than are being sold. The virus has depressed restaurant business, discouraged vacationers and some who would have come to stay at motels and eat out spent their travel dollars on boats or recreational vehicles. There are still lobsters offshore from New Jersey north where the water is cooler, but some lobstermen’s boats aren’t as well suited to offshore travel. It’s time consuming, uses more fuel and a little more dangerous to work a distance from other boats. Scientists are keeping an eye on the Gulf of Maine and George’s Bank water temperatures.

What do lobstermen do when the scarcity of lobsters, increased government regulation and the costs of fishing for them combine to make lobstering unprofitable? Some of the Maine lobstermen have become farmers. With a little help from Maine’s Island Institute, twenty-four farmers now work with Atlantic Sea Farms, the first commercial seaweed farm and nursery in North America that cultivates seeds and gives them to their farmers and helps with the design and layout of their farms. They grow two types of kelp which Atlantic processes into goods they sell online. Some of the farmers are still lobstering but by supplementing their income, they are protecting their futures.

Captain David Spear is a Maine lobsterman who overcame the uncertainty of the lobsterman’s income by supplementing it with his earnings as a pilot boat captain. On schedule or on short notice, Captain Spear transports harbor pilots to and from their work sites. Before the corona virus restrictions on cruise ships, Captain Spear had to bring his pilot boat close enough for the harbor pilot to leave the pilot boat, grab the rope ladder swinging back and forth on the side of the cruise ship that might have been ten stories high. Neither boat stops for the transfer. Pilots who made unsuccessful moves from one boat to the other have died but Captain Spear hasn’t lost a pilot in the twenty years he has supplemented his lobsterman’s income with harbor piloting.

Long Island lobsterman Mike Craig took out a loan and bought what he needed – trays, racks, buoys, coolers and seed – to start raising oysters when lobstering was no longer a productive way to spend his workdays. He sees it as a way to stay on the water. John German was lobstering for fifty years – old enough to retire, smart enough to continue working – and changed over to conch fishing. Down from two boats in the 1980s and 1990s, setting 5,000 traps, to one boat now, German’s current lifestyle is less lucrative and less exciting. He finds conch fishing less interesting than lobstering – he liked looking at lobsters and having them look back at him.

In New Jersey the brothers, Joe, Jr. and Adam Horvath, who run their boats, “Baby Doll” and “Fully Loaded,” post their ETA back at the dock on their Facebook page so customers know when to come to the dock with their coolers to take home fresh, out of the trap lobsters. Calling themselves Jersey Shore Lobster Brothers, they sail out of Neptune and can be reached at (732)996-1969. Last month consumers who met the Horvaths at the dock at the end of a day’s lobstering could expect to pay $7.50 a pound for lobster, $15 a pound for scallops and $11 a pound for shrimp.

Stories about Maine lobstermen speak of rival gangs and losses of lobsters and equipment from the struggle to control the best areas for offshore lobstering. Joe Horvath’s boat, “Baby Doll,” was torched by a lobsterman who had previously gotten into a gun battle with one of the Horvaths after vandalizing the Horvath lobster traps.

Captain Tim Handrigan is a third generation fisherman who fishes for lobster year-round out of his dock at Point Judith, Rhode Island. His lobsters come from the Gulf of Maine and offshore canyons. The lobsters he brings in are kept in a giant pool and maintained at a constant 38 to 40 degree F. temperature to replicate their ocean environment. With pictures and reasonable prices, Captain Handrigan as “The Lobster Guy” and his business, Ferry Wharf Fish Market, don’t disappoint his online customers. I couldn’t recommend something I didn’t try so I ordered and found the delivery was timely, when they said it would be, the order was packaged with gel packs and everything I ordered was cold or frozen as it was supposed to be. You can get lobsters fresh or steamed.
To get something that looks like the picture of lobster tails, you can butterfly them, cutting a line straight down the center. After you pull up the lobster meat you have a place to put the spices that enhance the flavor of the lobster. If you just have 5 or 6 tails and they’re not too big, you can use a teaspoon of each – salt, pepper, paprika, garlic, parsley, chives and rosemary. If you have a kitchen garden or herbs in pots outside, you can add something you like, delete something you don’t like or increase what you like better. Mix the spices with as much melted butter as you feel comfortable with and keep some melted butter for dipping when the tails come out of the oven. Once you have decorated the tails with spices and butter, put them in the broiler for 8 to 10 minutes. Watch them to be sure they aren’t too close to the fire. When the lobster meat is opaque and the top is browned, bring out a few lemon slices and the rest of the melted butter. These are good and are even better if you use Irish butter.

When lobstermen get home from a day’s work, they are physically tired. Lobstering is a process of getting bait, picking up traps, emptying them, refilling the bait, stacking the rebaited traps for return to the water, checking for notched lobsters, females, bycatch, undersized lobsters. The lobsterman and his crew, the sternman or sternmen, leave early and are often buying bait by 4 am. The further they go for their traps, the longer the day. As the traps get winched into the cockpit they are opened, lobsters pulled out and measured. The bycatch – crabs, eels, flounder and other small fish – are tossed back with short lobsters. The sternperson rebaits the trap, closes it and sends it sliding across the cockpit floor toward the stern of the boat. When there is a second stern person he bands the keeper lobsters and restuffs the bait bags. The traps are set up to go off the stern in reverse – the last one in will be the first one out. Having just one sternperson doubles the work and everything takes longer.
Keeper lobsters are usually measured so the lobsterman doesn’t get any surprises. Fines start at $500 for taking undersized or notched or female egg bearing lobsters. When the day’s total catch averages three keepers per trap, it will usually pay for the boat expenses plus extras.
If you would like to learn the process of lobstering, you can watch a video – “Episode 5: Going Lobstering with Jerry Pallotta.”