Whether or not lobsters are being overfished, lobstermen face some serious problems. If the banner years end and catches return to their previous levels, overfishing might become a more plausible danger, because there are far more traps in the water than there used to be. And even if no biological disaster ever occurs, an economic one might. Fishermen who have invested too heavily in their equipment will suffer if catches decline, as will families who have grown accustomed to a higher standard of living. Some lobstermen fishing today have no memory of the slower-paced, less lucrative kind of lobstering that the older generation knew. That is because they started lobstering recently—after the collapse of other fisheries. On the whole, however, lobstermen in Maine are thoughtful and broad-minded stewards of a communal resource, and they understand that fishing sustainably is in their best interest. As one Islesford lobsterman puts it simply, "We throw back for tomorrow."
Bruce Fernald's father, Warren, is confident that the lobster population is in good shape. But given what he's seen in his half century of lobstering, he also admits that a decline in catches might be just what the industry needs. "I always relish a shakeout," he says. "Sometimes scoundrels get into the fishery. After a shakeout they don't do so well. The guys that have been hanging in there do okay."
Halfway through last summer Bruce Fernald was afraid a shakeout might already have arrived, too soon for his taste. The lobstering in the spring and summer had been mysteriously dismal, and some of the Islesford lobstermen were beginning to worry that the annual run of shedders would never materialize.
On the day last July when Robert Steneck was exploring with his ROV in the waters off Islesford, Fernald finished hauling his traps early—there wasn't much in them—and decided to swing by the Connecticut. The afternoon breeze was whipping up a light chop, so Fernald had to jockey his boat up to the side of the Connecticut with agile flicks of the throttle and well-timed twirls of the wheel. Steneck emerged on deck and traded banter with Fernald across the trough of seawater splashing between them.
"So far this is the worst season I've ever had!" Fernald shouted over the thump of his diesel engine. "But I'm seeing more oversized lobsters, V-notched lobsters, and eggers than ever."
"That's good!" Steneck shouted back. "We're picking up a lot of larvae in the water. For the long term, maybe things aren't so bad. And I think you're going to start seeing shedders in your traps any day now. We're seeing them on the bottom."
"I'll believe it when I see it," Fernald answered. He backed his boat away from the research ship, leaving a frothy wake. "Come by the island for a beer sometime!" Fernald shouted, saluting Steneck as he pulled away.
A few minutes later the VHF radio on Fernald's boat sputtered to life, and a scratchy voice came over the airwaves. It was Jack Merrill, who had earlier in the day given Steneck coordinates for finding big lobsters. He was calling Steneck on the Connecticut from where he was fishing, fifteen miles out to sea.
Steneck responded, and after a brief exchange said to Merrill, "I don't know if it makes any difference to you where you're fishing, Jack, but I just told Bruce that over here we're starting to see some shedders."
"Oh, yeah?" Merrill said, sounding incredulous. "Throw a few in my traps, will you?"
"Yeah, right!" Steneck said.
The voice of another Islesford fisherman crackled through on the radio. "You saw shedders?" he said, his tone almost pleading. "Where the hell are you? Stay right there, I'm on my way."
As it turned out, the lobstermen of Islesford didn't need submarines to find their lobsters after all. In the middle of August the shedders came on like never before. The fishermen counted their blessings and fished like crazy.