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Trap Day on Monhegan

Trap Day on Monhegan
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SLIDE SHOW: Trap Day on Monhegan

No one goes till everyone goes. That’s the way it’s always been on Trap Day on Monhegan, when the island’s lobstermen first set their traps off the darkened shoreline of one of Maine’s most storied offshore communities.

Over the years, Monhegan has maintained very different lobstering traditions from anywhere else on the Maine coast. To begin with, since 1998 Monhegan has had its own vigilantly guarded, jealously regarded fishing zone: in an area arcing two miles from its shores to the north, east, and west and three miles out to sea to the south’ard.

For another, 90 years ago Monhegan’s lobstermen voluntarily established their own ban on harvesting small lobsters–a harbinger of lobster management for the entire coast. Then they agreed among themselves to limit the number of fishermen who may set traps as well as the number of traps each of them may set in his or her zone, in order to conserve their lobster stocks and prevent overfishing.

And lastly, Monhegan’s lobstermen fish primarily in winter, when other lobstermen have already hauled their gear out and when the market’s supply of lobsters is low, but prices are higher.

A lot has changed in Maine’s lobstering communities, including Monhegan’s, but the most important traditions around Trap Day haven’t changed in the past century.

On September’s last day, islanders begin re-enacting old rituals as Monhegan’s fleet of rusted, unmuffled pickup trucks lumber down to the wharf, swaying like ancient beasts under their towering loads of traps, retrieved from cluttered dooryards and beneath spruce trees all around the village. Watching this progression, Sherm “Shermie” Stanley, now one of the island’s most experienced captains, dryly remarks, “All the trucks are getting lopsided … like the lobstermen.”

Down at the harbor, they stack their lots of 300 wire traps apiece, neatly coiled lines, and color-coded buoys, each on his or her assigned area of the congested town wharf. Monhegan’s dozen lobster boat captains include two women. Chris Cash, the older of the two female captains and three months pregnant, fishes from the Priscilla Earl, a long, narrow-beamed wooden boat with a pedigree from a successful Cranberry Isles fisherman. Her pickup is emblazoned with an advertisement from her summer island business, “Cash Rentals.”

Amid the bustle on the wharf, community members, friends, relatives, and visitors get into the swing of Trap Day–literally. As traps are added to the pile, you marvel at how even slightly built men and women carefully use the sinew, bone, and rhythm of their bodies to hoist them into place. The most graceful grab the top of a trap with both hands, roll it up onto their thighs, and then in one swift movement, lift it overhead while snapping their backs forward to pitch it higher.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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