Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Lobster Tales

Mackerel Cove, Bailey Island

I went out with the Marine Patrol to research lobster crime for my second novel. The coast guard rescues people at sea, but enforcing state fishing laws and safety regulations falls under the jurisdiction of the Maine Marine Patrol. These waterfront policemen become part of the community they serve. It’s all about knowing the people and working with them to maintain a sustainable fishery and deter crime.

Allen’s Lobster Pier at Lookout Point

Lobster thieving is common, especially with prices reaching record highs. In January it peaked at $11.00 per pound off the boat. It’s a valuable commodity floating in holding crates, often unlocked, below the docks. The live lobsters are not tagged so they are hard to trace. After a string of recent robberies, most of the wharves now have surveillance cameras. In search of easy money to buy drugs, some crafty criminals cut power lines or don scuba gear.

Marine Patrol Officer Robby Beal at Interstate Lobster Pier

With M.P.O. Robby Beal as my guide, I set out to inspect the lobster wharves. Robby grew up lobstering since age seven with his Dad off Mt. Desert Island. He went to Syracuse University in New York, but the sea called him back to Maine. In yet another small town moment, I discovered that his sister-in-law was my daughter’s teacher.

Robby picked me up in Brunswick and drove south through Harpswell down a narrow neck of land. After days of rain, the sky was washed clean to bleached blue with sixty-degree weather and a gentle breeze. It was fresh as linens on a line. What a day to drive along the coast, stopping at hidden coves riddled with small islands.

Most of the wharves were quiet since it’s early in lobster season that in this region kicks in mid June and lasts through Christmas. Some set traps year round but have to buy an expensive offshore fishing permit. The annual lobster migration follows the warm water from the shallow, tidal coves out to the open seabed. At this time of year, most of the catch is shedders. To grow, lobster shed their hard shell. The soft shell lobsters are easier to eat and sweeter but not worth as much since there is less meat per pound. The old timers know to wait.

Redder shedders hauled up by the Whistlin’ Dixie

Bobby Bidder has been lobstering for over forty years. He makes and maintains his wooden traps. His wife, Marolyn, was painting the rusty parts of their metal traps. Bobby’s family has been fishing in this area since 1650.

Merolyn Bibber

The Bibbers still live in an old house overlooking the docks. High property values and soaring taxes have forced the younger lobstermen to commute from inland. The old fishing shacks are torn down and replaced by luxurious summer homes. That’s the worst lobster crime in my book.

Bobby Bibber

The story of Bobby’s childhood was worthy of Dickens. His father had a drinking problem and let his injured wife die of neglect. Bobby and his brother became wards of the state and set to work on a farm. When Bobby was 13 and his brother 14, they heard from the minister that their two sisters were living with their father.

The boys stole the farm pick up truck and went in search of their lost family. When his brother ran a stop sign, the police gave chase. Scared, the boy sped off at 80 mph. He didn’t stop until he lost control and crashed into a tree. The brothers blacked out but, even without seatbelts, survived the impact; the truck did not. It took two wreckers to unwrap it from the tree.

Bobby and his brother fled the crash site and hid in the hills for a week, living off berries. They then headed off to Portland on foot hoping to find work. When the disheveled pair made it to the biggest city in Maine, they were arrested for bank robbery. They were innocent of that crime but not for the stolen truck, driven too far from the farm by a minor. Instead of finding their family, they were sent back to the farm with a criminal record.

After enlisting in the marines, Bobby returned to his old home in Harpswell to fish for lobster. He practiced shooting at eight-penny nails hammered into a tree. He has a .357 pistol and a rifle. That tree is going nowhere.

Bobby’s sharp shooting came in use on the night he awoke to the sound of lobster thieves. He called the state trooper and loaded his pistol with two bullets. He fired a warning shot into the ground, but the thieves jumped into their truck.

I can’t share the rest of the story because a fictionalized version will be in S.A.D. It was a good day of lobstering: I hauled in a salty tale.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Closet Lobsterman

Forget about mud season. We had the biggest snowstorm of the year last week after three days of flurries. A foot of snow buried the mud, snapped branches as loud as gunshots and stole our power.

My daughter sighed, “It’s just like Narnia: always winter and never Christmas.”

My son added, “Well, we didn’t have a white Christmas, but maybe we’ll have a white Easter. Guess we won’t be looking for eggs outside this year.”

The kids were at least happy for a snow day. Needless to say, they were up at 5am. We snarled at them to be quiet and went back to sleep, hiding from the cold house under the covers. When I came down, I was overjoyed to find that the kids had shoveled out the walkways.

We’re usually plowed out before dawn but still plenty to shovel. Five years ago Carl said that he was too old to get out of his truck for the remainders. Every fall I call to check back in with him.

Carl replies, “Oh yeah. I’ll be plowin’ for as long as the good Lord be willin.’”

Many locals enjoy the extra income of a snowstorm’s bounty. We don’t usually get this much snow in April, but anything can happen in mud season. There’s an expression in Maine that if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.

Flowers and green leaves don’t even make an appearance until May. It’s a good thing I’m traveling south to NYC next week –I can catch a spot of daffodils. There's still snow on the ground here with another snow storm due tomorrow.

Spring is the off-season for lobster fishing except for those who are willing to pay for an offshore fishing permit. In March the lobsters migrate to the open ocean and don’t come back until June. Many lobstermen work a second job during that time or build and repair their traps.

Dave Merryman with a v-notched female lobster

I met a lobsterman in my closet. Dave Merryman was subcontracting to my builder Mark Wild. It was a big walk in closet, but Dave looked cramped and resigned to shelving a New York shoe collection. Even discussing the most intimate details, he was always a gentleman.

When I created the character of Jake Marlin, the lobsterman in my second novel S.A.D., I called on Dave. I had read The Secret Life of Lobsters, so I was well prepared in my wellies, waterproofs and life jacket.

Lobster fishing is wet. There’s the ocean spray and several inches of fishy wash on the deck flowing out the open stern. It’s no mean trick balancing on the swells, but luckily we had a calm day in September. Doped up on anti-nausea drugs, I nibbled through a box of saltines as I inhaled the diesel fumes.

I’m no stranger to doing research on a boat, having spent a summer studying dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. I soon rediscovered my sea legs. Snapping photos of lobstering is easier than catching a dorsal fin in the instant it breaks clear. You don’t get to name the lobsters, as I did the dolphins, but at least you can eat the catch.

I asked Dave what was the strangest thing he ever hauled up in a lobster trap. “Other than a dead body?” he asked with a knowing smile.

“Sorry, I’ve changed course. It’s commercial women’s fiction. I don’t think I can use severed limbs, although I’m still going with the marauding lobster gangs.”

Aside from the dead body, it’s a true story. Dave’s father runs a cooperative on Pott’s Point to sell their catch. One year some guys were stealing lobsters from the holding crates that float below the docks. Dave and his family set out a video camera and caught them at night.

Lobstermen have a code of honor. If you break the rules, someone will cut your lines, and you’ll lose your traps. A lobstermen, however, won’t hesitate to aid another in need – we stopped to help another fishermen detangle his lines.

Lobstering is one of the few sustainable fisheries due to decades of self-regulation. The state has only more recently gotten involved and not always with the most desirable results.

Baby lobster (not a keeper)

I watched Dave throw back more than half his catch, measuring each and every lobster with lightening speed. The little ones, big ones and breeding females are tossed back; the rest are “keepers.” If a lobsterman catches an egg-laying female, he cuts a v-notch in her tail fin so that she’ll be protected even without her spawn.

Female lobster with eggs

It’s hard work hauling up the 40-pound brick weighted traps, and it’s dangerous. It would be easy to step into a loop of rope and be pulled down to the seabed. Dave keeps a sharp knife close to hand at all times. I nervously kept an eye on the open stern.

Dave keeps track of his trap location by GPS and a chart plotter. It’s a jealously guarded art as to where to set the traps and quite a privilege to be allowed on board to watch. Dave says he trusts me. What a gift.

I came back dockside full of humble respect and joy. I had found the romantic interest for my divorced naval wife in S.A.D. My fictional lobsterman had come to life in the salt spray. He’s not Dave in character, but he’ll have his knowledge and love of the sea.

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