Lobstering in Maine: Then and Now

Lobstering in Maine: Then and Now

As hard as it may be to believe there has not always been a lobstering industry on the coast of New England. That’s because in the early days, anyone could easily catch a lobster. In fact, lobsters were so abundant that a person could wade into the water and easily pull one out. Native Americans used lobsters to fertilize their crops and bait their fishing hooks. They also ate the crustaceans, preparing them by covering them in seaweed and baking them over hot rocks. This cooking method inspired the classic New England clambake.

Since lobster was readily available, a poor family might make a meal of it several times a week. Sometimes storms would wash ashore hundreds of lobsters at one time. During the colonial era and beyond lobsters were routinely fed to prisoners, apprentices, and slaves. In Massachusetts, some servants sought to limit the amount of lobster in their diets by including stipulations in their contracts that they would only be served the shellfish twice a week. Today it is hard to believe that this pricey delicacy was once free and there for the taking by anyone.

The earliest report of organized lobster fishing in Maine dates from 1605 when James Rosier wrote after a haul in Muscongus Bay, “With a small net…very nigh the shore, we got about thirty very good and great Lobsters.” In those days a lobsterman could lean over the side of his boat and using a net or gaff (pole with a hook at the end) catch several in little time.

Gradually a market for lobsters grew in Boston and New York, but simple methods of fishing them were still used. In the mid-1800’s the French invented a method for canning food and everything changed. Now there was a way to preserve perishable foods like lobster. This made it possible for lobster to be consumed year round and in places far from the ocean. The first lobster cannery was established in Eastport, Maine around 1843. By 1880 there were 23 lobster canneries in the state of Maine shipping lobster throughout the United States and even overseas.

With demand for lobster increasing, the simple hoopnet trap (1) was replaced by the wooden lobster pot (2). These were dumped over the side of a row boat and hauled by hand. Sailing boats evolved for lobstering, such as the Muscongus Bay sloops, and fishermen could travel farther afield to tend their traps. Then engines were developed, providing power to go long distances and haul traps in deep water. Eventually, the wooden lobster pot was replaced by today’s more durable plastic coated wire trap (3).

Lobstering, which once was as simple as a walk to the shore where a free meal was there for the picking, has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry. Unfortunately for today’s lobstermen, the cost of catching this popular mouth watering meal is far from free.