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Trap Day on Monhegan

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.

One of Boynton’s crew members, Dr. Robert Stahl, a physician who spends May to November on Monhegan, remarks, “Don’t you think we’d be better off if they stopped regulating fishing so much and started regulating banks more?” On the wharf, Mattie Thomson finishes loading his boat. “Now we go home and bag bait,” he sighs, mindful of the increasing costs of doing business. “Just stuff the bait bags about the size of a softball,” he instructs his crew. “Don’t make ’em huge.”

In the predawn light of the following morning, each captain and his crew ride uneasily aboard their vessels, waiting for the first faint hint of the break of day, heralding the beginning of a new and much-anticipated season. The excitement in this small anchorage is palpable in the crackle of nervous banter over the VHF radios. The most experienced captains will head to Monhegan’s exposed backshores to set their traps close in to the underwater cliffs, where the first day’s lobster hauls are always legendary.

Then as the gray dawn slowly opens, the radio crackles again with Sherm Stanley’s laconic transmission: “Let’s go.” Everyone throttles up and leans into the unknown of a new season.

Read more on the maritime culture and conservation of Maine’s offshore communities:

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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