Lobster Fishing in Maine

Homarus americanus is the Latin species name for the American lobsterLobster Homarus americanus

An edible crustacean, Homarus americanus refers to the species found in the North Atlantic.

When Europeans arrived in Maine, lobsters were large (averaging over 5 pounds) and plentiful—they could be gaffedGaff

1. A heavy hook fastened to the end of a handle for landing fish.
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aboard small boats in shallow water. Lobsters must be cooked immediately after they die, so without plentiful ice or fast transport to markets, lobsters weren’t important economically. In colonial times, they were most frequently used for bait or fertilizer.

The American Lobster Hoop Net


In the 1820s fishermen developed the smackSmack

Term broadly applied to small fishing vessels. In the United States, a smack is a small fishing schooner or sloop engaged in the fresh fishery, formerly having a well to preserve fish alive. Often now used as a term for a motorized fish-carrying boat.
, a boat with a wet wellWet well

On a fishing boat a well or tank exposed to the sea, in which live catch can be carried.
for carrying live lobsters. The smack allowed fresh lobsters to be delivered to Boston or New York, and the market grew.

Lobster Fishing from a Dory

The 1840s saw the beginning of the lobster meat canning industry by the same Underwood Company that now makes deviled ham. Canned lobster stimulated the fishery and resulted in a tremendous decline in the lobster population. In those years most lobstering was done from pulling boatsPulling boats pull, pulled

The nautical term for rowing is pulling; thus a pulling boat is a rowed boat.
or small sloopsSloop

A sailing vessel with a single fore-and-aft rigged mast.
, using open hoop potsHoop pot

An early style lobster trap. Another word for trap is pot.

By the 1880s lobsters were being overfished. Twenty-three canneries processed over 9 million lobsters, and many said the fishery had peaked in the 1870s. Maine imposed strict regulations limiting the catching of female lobsters, shortening the fishing season, and limiting allowable size range. By 1895 all lobster canning had moved to Canada. Similar restrictions today have preserved the lobster fishery while supporting record catches.

Modern lobster traps are about three feet long and made of plastic-coated wire mesh. Two large openings are on opposite sides, and inside the openings are side headsSide heads

In the lobster fishery, the heads or funnel shaped nets that let the lobsters into the kitchen section of the trap.
, or net funnels, that lead the lobster into the kitchenKitchen

In lobstering, the first compartment in a lobster trap in which bait is placed.
, where the bait bagBait bag

Net bag in a lobster trap in which the bait is put.
is placed. After eating the bait the lobster often can’t exit the way it came in, so it crawls through an opening into the parlorParlor

In lobstering, the second compartment in a trap into which lobsters crawl to try to escape from the kitchen, the section in which the bait is placed.

Lobster Pot, Round-top Wood Lobster Pot, Square Wood


Surprisingly, lobster traps allow about 90% of their catch to escape!

Traps are set on the bottom tied to lines called pot warpPot warp

Line used to attach lobster pots or traps to buoys that mark their location.
. There may be two or more pots on one warp. A buoyBuoy

A floating object designed for a special purpose often anchored to the sea bottom. Buoys range in size from large navigational buoys to lobster trap buoys.
, painted in a lobsterman’s distinct colors, marks the location of the warp, and a matching buoy is mounted on the lobster boat’s cabin.

Lobster Pot, Wire Turning a Lobster Pot Buoy on a Lathe


V-Notch Tool

Today, a lobsterman is allowed to work up to 800 traps. To protect the breed stockBreed stock

In fishing, the fish that are mature enough to actively breed and produce young. When the number of fish gets too low, the breed stock may not be enough to replenish the fishing population.
, he may not keep egg-bearing females or lobsters with a carapaceCarapace

On a lobster, the part of the exoskeleton or shell that extends from the eyes to the tail covering the thorax where the lungs and digestive organs are located.
less than 3 ¼ inches and more than 5 inches long. If a lobsterman catches an egg-bearing female, he must V-notchV-notch notch

In Maine, the notch required to be cut in the tail of a female egg-bearing lobster.
the tail so other lobstermen can easily tell it is a breeding female even if it is not then carrying eggs. Most marketable lobsters are at least 6 years old.

When the lobsterman hauls his traps, he uses a gaugeGauge

In fishing, a measuring device to determine if the catch is of legal size.
to measure the lobster. He then places strong rubber bands around the lobsters’ claws to keep them from attacking each other. The lobsterman then refills the bait bag and resets the trap.

Caught lobsters are kept cool, often in a seawater tank, until the boat returns to the dock, where they are put into a lobster carLobster car

Floating crate in which lobsters are kept temporarily.
until sold. Large lobster poundsLobster pound

A body of water that is enclosed by a fence in which lobsters can be temporarily kept, generally awaiting a better price or shipping. Some buyers have created large tanks, artificial lobster pounds.
allow merchants to keep the lobsters alive until sold to stores, restaurants, or the public.

Lobster Claw Pegs Lobster Pound, Hancock


In 2004 Maine lobstermen caught almost 71 million pounds of lobsters worth about $285 million; catch dropped to 64 million pounds in 2005 worth about $291 million dollars. In 2011, over 104 million pounds of lobster were caught, with a value of about $334 million. Maine’s Department of Marine ResourcesDepartment of Marine Resources Maine Department of Marine Resources

Maine's department which is in charge of marine resources and is charged with enforcing coastal fishing regulations.
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is the regulatory agency that enforces fisheries law in state waters and maintains a biologist that specializes in lobsters. Other research organizations like the Lobster ConservancyLobster Conservancy

Organization based in Friendship, Maine dedicated to "sustaining a thriving lobster fishery through science and community." Programs include various educational programs, a juvenile lobster monitoring program, and a sonar tracking project.
and Lobster Institute provide primary research into Maine’s most valuable fishery. One of the objectives is to monitor the health of the fishery to prevent crashes which have decimated other fisheries.

Maine is working hard to get neighbors like Canada and Massachusetts and the Federal government which has jurisdiction outside of three miles off shore to adopt the stricter conservation standards such as sizes limits and V-notching. The fishery is now highly productive, more so than it has ever been. Will it last?

Click here to view lobstering images from PMM's photo collection.