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Trap Day on Monhegan

Trap Day on Monhegan
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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.

For years here, as Maine’s lobster harvests increased, a vital element of faith among lobstermen was that the harder you fished–the more often you hauled your traps–the more lobsters you caught and the more money you could make. From 1987 through 2003, Maine’s lobster catches increased from some 20 million pounds to 90 million pounds. But then after an astounding 25 years of increasing harvests, lobster landings began descending, by 2007 down to 56 million pounds, a 40 percent drop.

The Commissioner of Marine Resources agreed to extend Monhegan’s lobstering season. But the lobstermen had to cut their trap numbers in half–from 600 to 300–a bitter pill to swallow. But science promised hope. For six weeks in the fall of 2005, seven Monhegan lobstermen participated in a study by Maine’s top lobster biologist, Carl Wilson, to determine how trap density was affecting lobster catches. It turned out–mirabile dictu–that the highest lobster catches per unit of effort came not from the areas of highest trap densities, but from medium-density areas. Furthermore, the costs of fuel and bait were substantially lower in the study’s medium-density areas.

Although most of Monhegan’s lobstermen believed they had signed on to a Faustian bargain with the Department of Marine Resources, at the end of the 2007-2008 lobster season, their new trap limit and extended season proved successful.

Looking ahead, however, the future is much less certain. As the recession deepens, declining consumer demand, record-low catch prices, and the rising costs of fuel, bait, and other necessities signal a renewed struggle for economic survival for Monhegan’s isolated community, durable but ultimately fragile.

As the last few crews load their traps aboard waiting vessels, the rest of the fleet bob at their moorings in the waning fall light. Doug Boynton scrambles on top of his traps on the Alice B and fixes the last stabilizing poles in place. They’ll keep the load secure and ensure that all his traps meet state requirements, since marine wardens will likely be patrolling the fleet in the morning.

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