Lobsterman Richard Waldron hauls his traps by hand near the islands in the Muscle Ridge Channel. Photo by C. Parrish
Changes in Lobster Land
by Christine Parrish
“Thick as pudding out here,” says Richard Waldron, 77, taking his glasses off and tucking them in the folds of a red plaid shirt sitting on top of a lobster crate in the stern of his 16-foot skiff.
He’s pretty disgusted. This morning he was distracted and forgot his coffee thermos.
He opens up the throttle on the outboard and we pick up speed, the rockweed ledges and gray cabin on Flag Island fading into soft focus and then gone as the fog settles like a soggy towel over the Muscle Ridge Channel.
A weathered granite shelf as broad as a whale comes up fast. Waldron whips the skiff around it, barely slowing, then we are back scooting through timeless, gauzey fog.
This is about as simple as lobstering gets: an open fiberglass skiff with an outboard.
There’s just Waldron, me, four lobster crates, a bunch of bait bags, some castaway orange-and-yellow lobster buoys and a small fishing rod. A compass the size of a small dinner plate in a wooden casket as big as a cigar box is stowed away in the lobster crate I’m sitting on.
There are no winches, not even a pulley to make it easier to pull the lobster traps off the bottom. Nope. This is dead simple.
When Waldron slows and circles around the next set of buoys near the island I hand him the gaff hook.
“How do you know where you are going, Richard? There’s no landmarks. And you don’t even have your glasses on.”
“Not much point in wearing them. Can’t see out of them, anyway.”
True enough. It’s like driving down the interstate in a downpour with no windshield wipers.
“How do you know you won’t hit another boat?”
“They all have radar. They’ll see us.”
“What about kayakers?”
He looks at me like he really needs that coffee. Black. Strong. He’s used to fishing alone. He’s not used to all these questions.
“Right,” I say.
The fog is so thick you could lick the salt right off it. Only a crazy kayaker would be out here.
The truth is, Richard Waldron knows his way around these waters without even having to think about it. He doesn’t know how he knows; it could be smell, it could be some internal sense of direction, it could be simple repetition. Whatever it is, after 64 years fishing these waters, people claim Richard Waldron can find his way up and down the Muscle Ridge in fair weather and in foul, in lightness and in dark.
“He’s the man,” says Skip Connell, 58, who runs Merchant’s Landing Marina on Spruce Head Island where Waldron keeps his skiff. Connell, who grew up sailing offshore as well as lobstering, scalloping, and groundfishing, runs a lobster boat with a full set of 800 traps set in 300 or so feet of water and uses so much electronic navigation gear he wonders if he’s getting lazy.
When it comes down to it, though, Connell knows his way around a compass and a nautical chart. He’s not going to get lost.
“Richard doesn’t know he’s the man, but he is,” says Connell. “We all looked up to him. Guys would be standing around, wondering if it was too thick to go out, then they’d hear Richard’s boat. They’d have to go.”
I don’t know what Waldron was like as a younger man. Maybe he was ambitious and competitive, going after the big catch. After all these decades on the water, he seems as powerful and patient and balanced as the tides, part of the dynamic interplay of land and water in the Muscle Ridge.
Richard Waldron looks about as comfortable in the stern of his skiff as anyone I’ve ever seen at the helm of a boat.
As a 13-year-old boy in the 1950s, Waldron learned to fish from Pumpkin Drinkwater, one of the local lobstermen. It wasn’t long before young Richard had a skiff of his own, hauling heavy wood lobster traps up by hand.
He favored fishing over school, learned to build traps when they were made out of oak, knit trap heads and bait bags, salted down the bait and figured out where to set traps for the best catch.
He got a big boat, and as time went on, radar to track other boats and other electronic location equipment. Waldron fished hundreds of traps, made a good living, raised a family, went back to school at 40 to get his high school diploma, put in gardens and built a house off the grid in South Thomaston.
Over a decade ago, Waldron got rid of the big boat and went back to working with the tides and weather, balancing hard work with daydreams.
Now, he fishes four or five days a week, May to September, setting his 120 lobster traps in shallow water next to the Muscle Ridge islands and fishing on a lowering tide so it’s not as much work to get the traps to the surface and yank them into the boat.
“It was harder as a boy. Those wooden traps were heavy and there wasn’t synthetic rope, then.”
The biggest change in the fishery, by Waldron’s estimation, came in the 1960s when hydraulic haul gear was introduced and synthetic rope replaced natural rope; it meant lobstermen could haul more traps in less time and they would lose fewer of them since the rope didn’t break easily.
There have been other big changes in the past decade: younger fishermen buying larger lobster boats and fishing harder, off shore.
That happened after Waldron went old school. The battered compass is the only navigational aid onboard. If Waldron has a cell phone, I haven’t seen it.
He pulls in close to a ledge and idles the engine, gaffs a buoy with a hook, then pulls the line hand over hand. Before we head back to Merchant’s Landing, he’ll haul 40 traps around Flag and Hewett’s Island.
There’s no wind. Waves gurgle and slosh against the fiberglas hull and a couple of gulls keen for baitfish. Nearby, a bald eagle perches in outline on a ledge, wings lax. There are no other boats, no people, no squawk from a marine radio. The Muscle Ridge Channel, which stretches from Owls Head south to Two Bush Island, seems a place removed from time.
Muscle Ridge Channel lobster fishing is changing, as is the larger Gulf of Maine ecosystem. Some point to climate change as the ultimate cause.
There is no doubt the water is warming. The Gulf of Maine — which stretches from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia and includes the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire — is warming faster than 99.9 percent of the oceans of the world and is becoming increasingly acidic as a result of atmospheric change. It is still unclear how that will affect the lobster industry, which continues to have history-breaking catches year after year.
I came out fishing with Waldron to pick his brain about the changes he’s seen in a lifetime of fishing the same waters. As to the cause of those changes, I would pry into the science to link together what clues I could.
Earlier in the summer, lobster fisherman Dave Cousens, who also leads the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board, said starfish, sea urchins, sea sculpins, and rock crabs, all of which used to be common, were no longer coming up in traps.
Was it climate related? Who knows, but it was a good place to start.
“I used to see starfish, big ones, draped on top of my traps,” says Waldron, when I ask. “Monstrous damn things. They’d be inside, too, have themselves wrapped right around a bait bag.”
“I hardly see them at all, now.”
Starfish, or sea stars as they are now commonly known, are hungry and aggressive, opening mussel and barnacle shells with a tug of war, then everting their stomach into the shells to eat them. They, in turn, are eaten by bottom-feeding fish. A wasting disease that scientists found related to water temperature has decimated one sea star species on the West Coast by turning them into goo. A smaller outbreak of similar disease has been found farther south on the East Coast, but the Maine marine scientists I talked to were not alarmed.
“Once in a while, I get a tiny one in my traps, now,” says Waldron.
“How long’s that been, since you saw the change?”
This will become my standard question, one which I will ask Waldron and other fishermen over and over until I wonder if I risk being thrown over the side like a short lobster.
But Waldron couldn’t pin it down.
There aren’t many dummy crabs around,” he says, a while later, referring to rock crabs. “We would get crates of crabs back in the ’70s. Now, it takes two weeks to get enough for a good meal.”
Robert Steneck, a marine scientist at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center who specializes in lobster and urchin research, said temperature may play a role in many of the changes, but it may be subtle.
Steneck, who is a diver, says he sees carpets of stars in some places, though he never sees cunner anymore — a fish that feeds on sea stars. He doesn’t know why.
“The Gulf of Maine is a highly dynamic ecosystem,” says Steneck, noting many of the changes we see today have historical roots in the overfishing of cod, which goes back centuries.
Take those rock crabs.
Steneck, who is as astute a marine scientist as Waldron is a lobsterman, never passes up an opportunity for observation and data collection. He takes note of what he sees every time he’s near the shore, even when he’s not crunching data.
Steneck says it’s true that there are fewer rock crabs, but there are more lobsters, which displace rock crabs in the food web. They eat what crabs eat. They also eat crabs.
There are also a lot more Jonah crabs, a much larger crab usually found in deeper water than rock crabs, but it also competes with the rock crab for habitat. Warming surface and near-surface ocean temperatures could play a role in the Jonah-rock crab shift.
Steneck says most of the crabmeat we eat fresh in a crab roll used to come from rock crabs, also known as peekytoe crab. Now, it comes from Jonah. There’s no shortage of crabs, though, he says, pointing to how many dead crab carapaces he sees on the bottom of the bay every time he explores it with a remotely operated submersible vehicle.
“They are really abundant,” says Steneck.
“Crabs seem to go in cycles, like everything else,” says Waldron, on his boat.
That agrees with Steneck, who points out that Jonah crabs operate on an eight-year life cycle.
Urchins used to be common, too.
Waldron pulls up one trap with an urchin the size of a dime inside. That’s it for urchins for the whole day.
“When I came up to Maine in the 1970s, there were sea urchins everywhere,” said Steneck, who studies them. “I never thought they would be all gone.”
Cod fish used to eat urchins, but the decline of cod led to an urchin boom. Urchins, who are like the cattle of the deep, graze on kelp and, without the cod and other large predators to keep them in check, urchins mowed down a lot of kelp forests off the Maine coasts.
In 1987, the Maine urchin fishery took off like seagulls in a feeding frenzy when it was clear the Japanese market for urchin eggs, or roe, paid well. As urchins were fished out, kelp started returning and Irish moss took over some of the kelp territory, creating perfect habitat for young crabs that, in turn, ate young sea urchins.
“The adults crabs eat the adult urchins,” says Steneck. So what you have is a cycle that flipped: lots of urchins and fewer crabs and not much kelp, flipped to lots of kelp, no urchins, and lots of crabs that have no predatory fish to eat them and keep their populations in check.
If you step back in history to the decline of cod fish — which used to eat lobster, urchins, sea stars and crabs and was, in fact, a dominant predatory fish in the Gulf of Maine that also built the economy of the Maritimes — it gets to a root cause that contributes to many of the changes: overfishing.
Waldron is hoping for a better catch this week. A week ago he went out to haul 40 traps and came back with 22 shedders and a couple of hardshell. The same day a year ago he brought in 77 lobsters. The lobsters are shedding later this year than they have been in recent years, probably due to the cold spring.
He pulls up a trap with four inside.
“Surprise, surprise,” says Waldron. “I think they’re all males.”
Maine lobster fishermen agreed long ago to cut a notch in the tail of fertile female lobsters with eggs and throw them back to preserve the breeding stock.
Any fisherman that catches a so called “V-notch,” whether she has eggs or not, throws it back. Large lobsters also go back into the water, by law.
The fog’s going to lift when we get to shore,” I say as we get to the next trap.
“I know it.”
This haul yields a youngster, a half-pound female with blue eggs. Waldron holds it out for me to see.
“That’s real new. These juvenile females with eggs,” he says. The eggs turn orange when they’re ripe. The larvae that hatch out will float on the water surface until they grow large enough to sink to the bottom — usually a couple of months.
“I’m catching a lot of these little lobsters with eggs, now.”
So is Skip Connell.
“It’s real new,” says Connell. “Just the last few years.”
Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine Lobster Institute, says it may be triggered by the warmer water temperatures, but he doesn’t know the cause.
The change is not necessarily bad news.
“Look at Prince Edward Island,” says Bayer. They have naturally warm water. “And they have small lobsters with eggs. It’s a sustainable fishery.”
In Maine, it’s illegal to keep fertile females. Getting caught with a female lobster whose eggs have been scraped off can put a lobsterman ashore for four years, minimum, with a suspended license. That’s likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost income. Or they could lose their license forever.
Oversized lobsters also go back overboard. Big lobsters are big breeders, according to Steneck. A five- to six-pound female lobster can produce as many eggs as 20 one-and-a-half-pound lobsters, he said.
“There is a huge breeding population now,” says Bayer. The limits on breeding females and the oversize limits mean there is safety built in to create a sustainable fishery, he says.
Those practices have helped create a sustainable fishery, according to Steneck, who, along with Bayer, sees no indication that lobsters themselves are in decline.
Lobsters, both men say, are resilient, versatile, and mobile. They eat first and ask questions later. They’re opportunists and survivors. Unlike kelp and urchins who are tied together so closely, lobsters change their diets.
“They eat different prey at different times,” says Bayer. “When they need to grow and develop a new shell, they change what they eat. If they need more calcium or phosphorous, energy or protein, they eat the prey that will give them that.”
And if the water gets too warm, they move.
It’s tempting to think of them as scuttling slowly around the sea floor, but lobsters also use that powerful tail for jet propulsion; moving a couple of hundred miles in a season isn’t uncommon, especially for the large lobsters.
Fewer lobster larvae on the water surface may not indicate a declining population, either, Bayer says.
The larval stage is the most vulnerable time in a lobster’s life. When they are on the surface, everything eats them. Warmer surface water likely means the larvae are growing faster and dropping down to the bottom sooner, spreading out and potentially increasing their survival rate.
Steneck agrees. There are more, not fewer, baby lobsters on the bottom.
“I see no biological red flags,” says Steneck. “The lobster resource is there.”
It doesn’t mean there aren’t big problems.
“What I see is an economic problem. All the lobster crises in the past decade have been economic. First it was the recession and people weren’t buying lobster. Then the 2012 landings were so early, there wasn’t a market for the shedders.”
Steneck says the Maine seafood industry, which hinges on lobster, clams and scallops, needs to diversify to remain resilient.
That is not to say that the oceans aren’t warming and that change isn’t happening.
Black sea bass, which were never historically found in Maine, are one of the species that have moved north into midcoast Maine. In a Northeastern University study, researchers found lobsters in the Gulf of Maine react to black sea bass the same way they react to cod: they hide more and eat less. Could that affect growth? Maybe.
But other researchers have found that lobsters didn’t hide when striped bass were present, even though stripers gobbled them up.
Waldon throttles up the outboard and we head up the channel. He slows to show me a ledge covered with gray seals. Huge seals with boxy dog-shaped heads, they are a more northern species he used to never see in the Muscle Ridge. They pup here now.
Lobstermen often think seals compete for lobsters, but Steneck says no.
“They may snatch and even kill a lobster that fishermen throw back, as a reflex,” said Steneck. “They are fish eaters. They swallow them whole, head first. Their stomach linings are too sensitive for lobsters.”
A large bull stays on the ledge almost to the last as the others roll off into the water, sliding in and coming up, heads bobbing, watching us with dark eyes. It’s a pretty quiet exit, for a hundred or so seals. They don’t bark. They don’t look sleek like Andre, who was a harbor seal. They look like the next evolutionary step up to an elephant seal.
“I saw a white shark last year,” says Waldron.
They are likely coming in after the seals, says Steneck. He speculates the seals may be coming in after the increasing numbers of alewives that are coming back due to conservation measures on the state’s rivers.
At Hewett’s Island, we pass a dilapidated lobster pound where live lobsters used to be held in the water inside a fenced area just below the low-tide zone, awaiting pickup.
“There’s no lobster pounds now. They sell them quick and truck them off. These could be in Honolulu by tomorrow night,” says Waldron, nodding at the crate of fresh lobsters sitting in the middle of the skiff.
Bayer has something to say about research on the results of closing lobster pounds that is not yet public: it appears that the closure of the lobster pounds also wiped out a bacterial lobster disease called Red Tail.
Red Tail was fatal to about five to seven percent of the total Maine legal-to-catch lobster population on any given day, according to Bayer. It may or may not have been related to water temperature, but surely was related to density.
“It spread quickly, through a break in the shell or an antenna,” says Bayer.
Red Tail has now been gone for about 20 years.
“Think about that,” he says. “That is an increase of five to seven percent in the total lobster population. That is a lot of extra lobsters to catch.”
Lobster shell disease, which is related to warmer water and caused the lobster fishery south of Maine to collapse, isn’t spread from lobster to lobster, says Bayer. He’s done enough research to be sure of it.
It’s caused by something internal, says Bayer. And that could be a change in the environment.
The shedders are coming in. Richard Waldron hauled twice as many lobsters as the week before, including three hardshell and one with shell disease just starting on its back.
Two days later, I sit down with Waldron and Connell at the Rockland Cafe to pick their brains a bit more. The table with the name of Connell’s lobster boat, Zephyr, got snagged just as I walked in the door.
“I don’t think I’ve ever thought so much about what’s changed in lobstering as I have the past three days,” says Waldron, musing.
“There’s a place off Hewitt Island that used to be a great spot. I would get four, five, six, seven big lobsters. I never caught anything there last year.”
“I’ve got some little spots that always produced,” says Connell. “Last three or four years, nothing.”
Lobstermen see the sentinels of change. For a while, we talk about scallops and smaller lobsters, vanishing sea cucumbers, the scallop fishery — about which Connell knows quite a bit — about lobster traps that come up coated black and stinking. It’s another new thing.
“Penobscot Bay is like a backsplash for the East Coast,” says Connell. It’s the way the ocean currents move.
It’s rare that there are direct links between cause and effect, as there are between kelp, crab, and urchin. What is known is that the Gulf of Maine is shifting, some species moving in, others moving out, water warming and growing acidic, one species replacing another.
When research funding is available, scientists look at underwater data, chemical data, data from NASA satellites, and data from all the varied creatures of the deep to fill in the picture of what the lobstermen see.
“Oceans aren’t simple,” says Steneck. “Nobody thinks the lobster boom will go on forever. Nobody knows when it could change.”
Left, a clawless four-inch lobster has the ability to grow new claws. Right, Waldron holds out a half-pound female lobster with eggs — something he didn’t see a decade ago. Photos by C. Parrish