For the Love of Lobsters

A few Menemsha lobstermen hang on to a way of life as the catch in southern New England hits a 25-year low. Scientists, regulators, and fishermen are debating the reasons why.

The sky is dark over Menemsha when lobsterman Bob Sloane of Chilmark chugs out from Dutcher Dock at 4:30 a.m. on his sleek, white, thirty-four-foot fishing boat Endeavor. He’s heading toward a hard day of hauling 550 lobster pots with no help and no guarantees. Still, he feels the anticipation he used to feel as a boy of fourteen setting out lobstering in his skiff on Boston Harbor. “It’s like Christmas,” he says. “You go out there and wonder what’s going to happen. What’s here? What’s down there?”

Because lobsters hang out among rocks and granite outcroppings, it makes little sense to fish east of the Island, which is mostly sandbars all the way to Nantucket. If you’re looking for lobsters, you head off from the Island’s north shore (from West Chop to Aquinnah), or south toward Noman’s Land (the little clog-shaped island off Squibnocket), or west, as Sloane often does, toward Rhode Island.

Finding the best spots, unfortunately, no longer guarantees a good haul. Southern New England’s lobster population has hit a twenty-five-year low. The falling numbers coupled with increasing regulations and fuel costs have forced 40 percent of the region’s lobstermen to quit in the past few years. Sloane believes the shakeout is mostly over. But this means only a dozen or so lobstermen fishing out of Menemsha. And of those, only six or seven who actually make any part of a livelihood to speak of.

As a result, many of the lobstermen who have survived now hold their cards close. How many lobsters they catch, where they set their traps, what bait they use – they’d rather not say. If word gets out who’s doing well and where he’s doing it, next thing he knows, he’s surrounded by a fleet of interlopers. Menemsha lobstermen don’t claim defined territories like those staked out by Maine lobstermen, but they do have certain unspoken rules of courtesy and elbow room.

“There’s a kind of camaraderie among the fishermen,” says lobsterman Steve Larsen of Chilmark, who after nearly thirty years has hauled enough empty pots to know where to go (and not to go). “We all work together, but apart.” The tension comes, he says, when some of the newer people who don’t know the industry dump gear where they see gear. Things get crowded. Respect gets lost. The pie gets smaller. “I have a family to support,” says Larsen, “two kids in college, so I have to think about that.”

In the past, Larsen, like other Vineyard lobstermen, could have fished a maximum of 800 traps. Now he’s limited to 470 and works part-time as a carpenter.
The new regulations restrict each lobsterman to a percentage of the traps he’s worked in recent years; if you haven’t been lobstering much in the past, you
won’t be lobstering much in the future. (There’s an exception in that you can buy out another guy who’s ready to give up his license.) The idea is to reduce the pressure on the lobster population in hopes that it will rebound to the highs it was hitting back in the 1970s and again in the late ’80s and early ’90s. “It’s a positive thing,” says Larsen, “and yet at the same time it’s a bitter pill for a lot of people who were trying to get into the business and were trying to build up to the point where they could fish enough traps to make it worthwhile. Some guys are limited to 60 pots or less.”

Even Bob Sloane, who’s the highliner (the fisherman who catches the most in a season) out of Menemsha, has scaled back his operation to make ends meet. Recently he traded in his thirty-eight-foot, 650-horsepower boat, which could hold 2,000 pounds of lobster, for the shiny, white, thirty-four-foot, 375-horsepower boat that can hold only 800 pounds. Given that the best day now brings at most 600 pounds of lobster, the reduction made sense. It halved his fuel costs without slowing him down too much. Running at sixteen knots, Sloane goes farther afield than the guys with slower boats. “You can try putting on better bait,” says Sloane (the lobstermen are using skate now). “But if you can’t stand the competition, you’ve got to move.” Having been a captain for over a quarter century, he’s not shy about adventuring out. Heading out to Rhode Island and back, he averages some twenty-five miles round-trip. He works his traps like an ever-changing chess game, adjusting his strategy as conditions shift.

“You can go with the average,” he says, “or you can do something more radical and say, ‘Well, I’m going to take these 100 pots, and I’m going to go here. Maybe I’ll blank out, maybe I’ll do quite well.’ I’m still experimenting all the time. That’s part of the fun. I don’t care how long you’ve done it, there are some variables that are always changing.”

Maneuvering the boat, hauling the traps, and resetting the bait is not only exhausting, but dangerous, work. Get your foot tangled in the line as you throw a pot overboard, and the weight of the trap takes you over the side and down to the depths. The end. The risks are higher, the days harder, if you’re alone. Still, given the outrageous fuel costs (diesel at Menemsha was $2.99 per gallon in early July) and spotty labor situation, none of the Menemsha lobstermen take a crew member – called a sternman because he works in the back of the boat – with them.

Leaving in the dark, Bob Sloane often won’t see the Island again till late afternoon. “It gets you away and gives you a perspective while you’re out there,” he says. “You have time to think. When you come back in, seeing the Island from the water at the end of the day is beautiful. You can deal with the traffic, you can deal with the people; you’re in a much more relaxed state of mind.”

 For the past eight years, Sloane has been selling all the lobsters he can catch to Betsy Larsen at Larsen’s Fish Market in Menemsha. One day four years ago he got up the nerve to ask her out. “That was it,” he said. “I married my lobster dealer. Now I can’t complain about the price.”

When Endeavor pulls in, Betsy meets her husband of three years at the dock. It’s her favorite time of day. For a few minutes they’ll speak together, but then it’s business again. “The customer always comes first,” she says with good humor. “Even when your husband hits the dock. Needless to say, we don’t have much of a social life in the summer.”

Betsy has been waiting on customers and choosing lobsters at Larsen’s since she was fourteen. At nineteen she became manager of the fish market that her parents had started in 1969. Now, at forty-six, she owns it. “I have to be honest with you,” she says, “I didn’t say, ‘Geez, I want to run a fish market when I grow up.’” But if she had something else in mind, she can’t remember now what it was. Following a year of college and three months as a dental assistant, Betsy returned to the business she knew best. At Larsen’s she’s surrounded by family. These days her sister, their two cousins, two nephews, and eighty-year-old parents all work together at Larsen’s. Next door, her brother and sister-in-law run Menemsha Fish Market, and over in Vineyard Haven her other brother and sister-in-law operate The Net Result.

On a busy day, Larsen’s fish market may sell anywhere from 500 to 800 lobsters – live, cooked, picked, or cracked and split for people to take to the beach for a sunset supper. You must call by three on a summer afternoon if you want cooked lobsters for dinner that evening. “We have a six-burner stove, and once those pots get full, that’s it,” says Betsy. Her lobsterman husband would sooner eat a cheeseburger. Steve Larsen eats more peanut butter and jelly than lobster. But even those who don’t much like lobster realize that when it comes to entertaining visitors or dining out, lobster is the Island’s showcase cuisine.

That wasn’t always so. “Historians of New England often note that early settlers considered lobster a kind of junk food that was fit only for swine, servants, and prisoners,” writes Trevor Corson in The Secret Life of Lobsters (HarperCollins, 2004). “These claims may be exaggerated. But storms could blow lobsters onto beaches by the hundreds, making them a convenient source of feed or fertilizer for coastal farms, and most scholars agree that lobster was generally considered a low-class dish for human consumption.”

When Betsy’s brother Louie first opened his own fish market in Vineyard Haven two decades ago, he knew the big draw that a big lobster would be. He had his father Louis bring him twenty-five and thirty-pound lobsters from his offshore dragger working on Georges Bank. Louie set them in a tank where the customers could see them. The publicity was so huge that he’s kept at least one twelve- to fifteen-pound lobster in the tank ever since.

The irony is that of the 10,000 lobsters The Net Result sells in a good week these days, 90 percent have been brought in from off-Island. “That tells you the state of the industry,” says Louie Larsen, “because ten years ago, I used to ship all my extra lobsters off-Island.” Bob Sloane was able to do the same thing in the 1990s. No longer. The total catch in the region dropped almost 60 percent (from 720,000 pounds in 1999 to 304,000 pounds in 2004). To meet customer demand, Betsy Larsen buys not only from her husband Bob, cousin Steve, and a few other Menemsha lobstermen, but she also imports lobsters from New Bedford, Maine, and Canada.

That shift is hardest felt, of course, by those trying to make a living lobstering. So although Louie Larsen would much rather be out on the water as he and his dad once were, he knows it’s best to stick to the store. “I can always find something to sell,” he says, “but I can’t always find something to catch.”

The most stunning statistic about the life cycle of the American lobster (Homarus americanus) is that it takes roughly seven years to grow big enough to catch and eat; much of what we put on our plates takes only weeks, months, or a year before it’s ready to harvest. The long growth period is what Mike Syslo, director of Martha’s Vineyard Marine Fisheries Field Station (previously known as the state lobster hatchery, and located on the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs) emphasizes when he talks about lobsters. “Unfortunately, the seventh year, when they become legal to catch and keep, is the same year they become capable of reproducing,” says Syslo. “The fishing pressure is so intense on lobsters, there’s so much gear out there, that typically 90 percent of mature lobsters are caught and sold before they reproduce even once.”

In an effort to protect such a fragile resource, Syslo started working in Oak Bluffs in 1978 as the assistant to John Hughes, who had founded the hatchery back in the 1940s. The challenge they faced in trying to raise large quantities of newly hatched larval lobsters was this: Lobsters are cannibalistic from the day they’re hatched; if you don’t feed them around the clock, seven days a week, they start eating each other. Back in the hatchery’s heyday, Hughes and Syslo had five summer assistants and two volunteers to give the lobsters all the attention they needed. By keeping them in warm water year-round, they could reduce the amount of time it took to grow a one-pound lobster, from seven years in southern New England waters to two years at the hatchery. Each year the hatchery crew raised 500,000 to 600,000 larvae to the bottom-crawling stage and released them into Vineyard waters and along other coastal areas of Massachusetts.

That was a lot of lobsters. Still, there was no way to prove how much of the Vineyard hatchery stock survived to harvest time. Whatever type of tag they attached to a lobster’s shell got lost when it molted. (To grow, a lobster must shed its suit of armor by pumping in seawater until the pressure against the shell bursts the shell on its back. The lobster tips over like a drunken sailor. In that exhausted and vulnerable state, it must disentangle its legs, antennae, mouth, and large claws from the narrow openings of its old shell.)

“It’s worse than that,” says Trevor Corson, the author: Because a lobster is an invertebrate, every rigid anatomic feature is part of the exoskeleton, including the teeth inside the stomach that grind food. The lobster must rip out the lining of its own throat, stomach, and anus before it can free itself from its old shell. “Some die trying,” Trevor says. If the lobster survives, he must keep from being eaten in his naked, white, soft jelly state during the two weeks it takes his new paper-thin shell to harden. What’s more, for the first five years of his life he’s got to undergo this risky molting process about five times a year. In adulthood, he’ll slow his shedding to once a year. But with each shell goes every marker of a wild lobster’s age or whether it was released from a hatchery.

There was a point when Mike Syslo thought they’d found a way around that problem. Since only about one in a million wild lobsters has a brightly colored shell – either cobalt blue, bright yellow, or bright red (looking like it’s been cooked, though it hasn’t) – Mike collected these rare-color morphs from the lobstermen and bred them at the hatchery. He found that a cross between two bright blues produced 100 percent bright-blue offspring. Likewise with the bright reds and yellows. He had the idea that these different-colored lobsters could be raised and stocked in Massachusetts waters, so that a count could at last be kept on how many stocked lobsters survived seven years to be caught by fishermen. Unfortunately, the bright colored creatures had a high mortality rate in the hatchery, and the experiment fizzled.

To date, no one has developed a way to permanently mark a lobster for its entire life. Without those numbers, Syslo couldn’t prove to the state’s satisfaction what good the hatchery was doing. There were cutbacks at the Division of Marine Fisheries, and in 2003 the Lagoon Pond hatchery – the last in the state – was shut down. The tanks that had been filled and the pumps that had been running 24/7 for decades were drained and suddenly silent. Syslo loaded up all the lobsters he’d raised and delivered them back to the sea. Someday, he hopes, the tanks will be bubbling again.

A female lobster carries her eggs on the outside of her tail for nine months to a year; protecting egg-bearing females – eggers – is critical to lobster management. Because it’s illegal to keep or sell eggers, unscrupulous fishermen remove the egg mass with a brush, a pressure hose, or bleach. Syslo has helped law enforcement crack down on many of those cases. (Most of the offenses in nearby waters are carried out by fishermen other than Vineyarders.) Until about eight years ago, there was only a small fine for those caught removing eggs, and no limit on how many lobsters an offshore dragger could bring in. Often a dragger would catch 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of lobster per trip. The sex ratios of the catch could be highly skewed – twenty-five females to one male, as opposed to the average of three females to one male. Those statistics signaled Syslo that something was wrong. He was among those who pushed to get a state lobster-protection bill passed. The resulting regulations not only increased penalties for illegal egg removal, but also set the offshore limit for the non-trap sector (draggers and gill netters) at 500 lobsters per trip.

Because Syslo is not only a biologist for the state, but has also worked with law enforcement and lobstered out of Menemsha himself, he sees the lobster situation from several sides. When asked why he thinks the regional lobster population has dropped, he points to several reasons. “My gut feeling is – and the fishermen probably won’t agree with this – I think there’s too much gear, too many traps and pressure on the resource. I also think we’re getting environmental changes out there, like warming ocean waters, maybe more pollutants in the habitat. In the southern New England waters, the fishery was sort of teetering on the fence, and my gut feeling about what pushed the resource to the other side of the fence was the whole issue of shell disease.”

Scientists are still trying to figure out why shell disease attacks some lobsters and not others. What they know so far is that it’s caused by a combination of at least thirty different bacteria that live in sea water – on rocks, seaweed, and even on the shells of healthy lobsters. Something triggers these normally harmless bacteria to eat away at the lobster’s hard shell. When the infected lobsters are cooked, black spots appear, making them look, as Syslo says, “as if you’d poured battery acid on them.” Affected lobsters are, however, perfectly healthy for humans to eat. It’s merely a matter of aesthetics; customers want to see perfect, red lobster on their plates. As a result, fish markets and restaurants are forced to shuck the meat from the flawed shells, and lobstermen are forced to accept less per pound.

Even in the best of circumstances, the odds of a lobster egg making it to adulthood are incredibly slim. Most of the mortality occurs during the two to three weeks of the larva stage when the eggs are drifting on the surface of the ocean and either starve to death, get eaten, or wash ashore. Of the 5,000 to 6,000 eggs that a one-pound to one-and-a-half-pound female will hatch, less than one tenth of one percent will reach legal size. That number amazes even Mike Syslo.

When you add shell disease to the equation, you begin to understand what the lobsters are up against: During the nine-month period the female carries the eggs on her back, she can’t molt. Because she carries her shell twice as long as the males, her risk of picking up shell disease increases. Shell disease makes her less vibrant and the eggs less likely to hatch.

Some scientists believe that rising water temperatures in southern New England may be causing the outbreak of shell disease. Though the American lobster can exist as far south as North Carolina, it’s a cold-blooded animal that prefers cold water. In recent years they’ve been thriving in the Gulf of Maine, with few signs of shell disease. Robert Glenn, who now serves as senior marine fisheries biologist in Pocasset, recently co-authored a paper showing a significant correlation between warming waters and shell disease. He studied surface temperatures at Woods Hole since 1948 and found no consistent trend through the entire time period – until 1997. “Then in 1997 to present we had eight straight years where the number of days above 20 degrees Celsius [the threshold temperature for lobsters] was significantly high,” says Robert. That coincided with the timing of the shell disease.

Glenn agrees with Syslo that a number of factors have made the resource so vulnerable. “The commercial exploitation keeps the viability of the population right on the edge,” he says, “and it only takes a little push, like a slight change in environmentally increased temperatures, to throw it into a spiral.”
Regulations now require that the minimum size in Lobster Management Area II (south of the Cape, including Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound) be a carapace of three and three-eighths inches, the measure from the rear of the eye socket to the back of the shell where the tail begins. Other limitations have reduced this area’s number of fishermen from 224 working 83,000 traps in 1999 to 149 fishermen working 54,000 traps in 2004. Since Area II represents only a small portion of state waters, however, it hasn’t greatly affected the larger number of lobsters caught. Lobster continues to be the most profitable inshore fishery for the state, where the harvest averages between 10 million and 12 million pounds a year.

Early reports this spring from Menemsha lobstermen indicate that the health and number of lobsters might be improving this season, though it was too soon to say for sure as the magazine went to press. “There are positive signs that the worst may be over,” says Glenn, who is cautiously optimistic. “But full recovery is still a long way off.” The Menemsha lobstermen who have survived the fallout are, of course, hopeful that things will turn around, that all we’re seeing is a natural swing. Despite the morass of regulations, the pile of increased bills, the difficulties with shell disease and marketability, they still bait and set their traps.

“There’s a reason we keep doing this,” says Steve Larsen. “There’s a small group that takes pride in this industry. When the weather starts breaking in March, you start wanting to get out on the water again. There are so few of us now that we’re kind of a novelty. People enjoy seeing the boats unload lobster. When you come in, they’re waiting at the dock. They’ve got a million questions.” When it comes to lobsters and what happens next, not even the guys who’ve spent their lifetimes in pursuit can answer that one for certain.