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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.

Once the wharf is transformed into a landscape of wire high-rises, an elegant dance begins around the edges, as boats maneuver alongside to move traps from wharf to vessel on the afternoon’s high tide. By the end of the day, each lobsterman and his team will have moved about 10 tons of traps three times: from dooryard to pickup, from pickup to wharf, and from wharf to stern, 70 pounds at a time.

Robert Bracy slips his 42-foot Pandora into place at the end of the wharf. He loads his traps 12 on edge in four rows, six courses high, with the final handful riding the gunnels, tipped inboard for stability. Bracy’s young son, Wyatt, comes down to the wharf in his lobster pajama top and climbs proudly into the pilothouse to watch his father hoist the last traps aboard before they head out together to the mooring, where the Pandora will ride fully loaded until daybreak tomorrow, October 1, when the season officially begins.

Sherm Stanley pilots his 40-foot black-hulled Young Brothers lobster boat, Legacy, into a loading spot at the front of the wharf. Sherm’s com-patriot, Doug Boynton, who has been fishing from Monhegan for almost 40 years and is now something of an elder statesman among the island’s lobstermen, eyes Stanley’s load of new, wider wire traps. “How am I going to compete with these big traps?” Boynton asks rhetorically. Stanley smiles: “I hope you can’t.”

For more than a century, Trap Day was January 1. Several years ago the lobstermen pushed it back a month. In 2007, the islanders again appealed to Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources to extend the season by two months by establishing October 1 as Trap Day.

The reason was the disturbing reality that despite all of their conservation efforts, they were catching fewer lobsters. They knew Monhegan’s continued existence was at stake, since the island’s winter economy depends almost entirely on lobsters. Declining lobsters, declining community.

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.

Updated Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

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