The American lobster-fishing industry has had a complex trajectory over the centuries as lobsters have gone from dockside junk food to upper-class delicacy to David Foster Wallace essay fodder. In more recent years, the industry has faced a new slate of challenges, including overfishing, global warming, and a proposed ban on lobster imports to the European Union. Through it all, the nautical crustacean has been identified with New England generally and Maine specifically; according to the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, the state accounts for 75 to 80 percent of American lobsters.
Sam Rosen is a lobster fisherman who grew up and lives on Vinalhaven, a town on an island off the coast of Maine with a year-round population of about 1,200 people. According to Vinalhaven’s chamber of commerce, roughly half of the island’s economy comes from lobster fishing and “related support activities.” For The Atlantic’s ongoing series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Sam about starting his job at a young age and how he is faring with the obstacles currently shaping the industry. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Venook: How did you get into lobster fishing?
Sam Rosen: For most people on the island, regardless of gender, if you have a parent that runs or works on a boat, it's likely that you'll spend some amount of your childhood working with them. If you don't have any interest in it you probably won't, but most kids that age are into boats and living creatures and whatever. You get to play with fish and crash around in a boat all day. In my case, my dad had me hauling a few traps from the time I was 4 or 5 years old. Then you work your way up to more traps as you get older, and eventually get your own boat. For me, my dad built me a boat when I was 11 or 12.
Venook: How does a lobster-fishing crew run?
Rosen: For Maine's inshore fishery, depending on your class of license, you can either go alone or take one to two different people. It's me and two guys.
Venook: What is a typical day out on the water like?
Rosen: A typical day varies a lot depending on where you fish and what kind of fishing operation is status quo in that area. Some areas only fish trap trawls, which are multiple traps on a line. I'd say for where we are on the coast of Maine, most guys set 800 traps and cycle through them over the course of three days. Sometimes you haul somewhere in the high 200s each day.
Venook: How many lobsters can you catch with 800 traps?
Rosen: It varies by season. A lot of the lobsters are caught in relatively small windows of time. The peak landings are really in August. When they shed their shells, they trap much more easily, and everyone does pretty well in the summer. In September through December, the lobsters are moving farther off away from the coast and deeper and not as many lobsters are being caught as a whole. For the places that fish really as their sole economic source, like where I am in mid-coast Maine, the peak season is the fall, because the price is up a bit and you're catching the same amount of lobsters, if not more.
Venook: During the off season, do people typically have other jobs?
Rosen: It's hard to give a general rule of thumb of what guys do, but some people have other jobs. A lot of guys in the off season don't do anything; they just get their gear ready. There's a lot of gear work involved. Some people in offshore fisheries fish through the winter and year-round. For the most part, you're not fishing offshore and you take your traps up. Most guys take them up around Christmas and back out sometime in April.
Venook: You’re currently not fishing because of a back injury. What's it like to have a job that’s so dependent on physical health, where an injury can sideline you for a long period of time?
Rosen: I'm young and stubborn, and I'm probably not a great person to ask because here I am, laid up because I didn't take care of it. It’s incredibly frustrating for someone who doesn't like taking any time off at all. You have to be careful. I’ve given myself stitches on my hand or fingers quite a few times after an accident. The slightest little injury can really make your day difficult. I got stitches this year on both the wrist on my right hand and on my left hand. You forget how careful you really should be about stuff like that, because it could mess up quite a few weeks and cost you quite a bit of money.
Venook: How does the actual process of getting the traps into the water and getting the lobsters out work?
Rosen: Where you're fishing will determine how many traps you fish on a line. Could be one or two, or 20 to 25. A hydraulic run pulls the rope through a block. When the traps reach the boat, you pull one in and then there's rope that connects to the next trap. You keep pulling until you've reached the end of whatever traps are on there. As the traps are coming about the boat, you're changing bait and then sorting out legals and illegals. Legal lobsters are going into a tray or some kind of container. Illegals are going over the side again.
Venook: What's the difference between a legal lobster and an illegal lobster?
Rosen: Fisheries determine what you can actually keep and harvest in several different ways. First, there's size. When females are egg-bearing or have recently carried eggs, you mark one of the flippers on the tail. After they shed their shell a number of times, the notch that you put in their tail will heal. You can't keep them when they have eggs and you can't keep them when they have notches. That just allows us to always keep a breeding population of females under water.
Venook: How often do people catch those enormous, 20-pound, three-foot long ones?
Rosen: It's hard to say because you can't fit a lobster that large in a trap. Nothing really much larger than a 15-pound lobster can really get in there. If they get in there they can't really move around at all and can’t get back out again. [The largest ones] could have gotten tangled up in a trap. Sometimes lobsters will go after the bait in the trap and their massive claw will get jammed into the trap or into the mesh and they won't be able to get it out, and when you'll haul the trap up and you'll have a lobster dangling off of it. You see quite large lobsters on the bottom quite often, but it's theorized that far off shore there are really, really large lobsters, a breeding population.
Venook: How does a 15-pound lobster compare to what you might see in a store or restaurant?
Rosen: In Maine, first of all, it's illegal to keep anything that would be anywhere close to that. If you're seeing a really large lobster for sale somewhere, it's not coming from Maine. If it is coming from Maine, it's coming from another boat that's taking it from Maine and landing it in a state where they don't have maximum-size limits.
That's a huge point of contention, because it's like we're the suckers who are really trying to carefully manage a fishery and preserve a decent breeding population and protect the larger lobsters, and then other fisheries are taking them and selling them. For all intents and purposes, larger lobsters don't taste as good; I think it's more just a rarity and oddity of having a behemoth-sized lobster on a plate.
Venook: Do you ever come into conflict with other boats?
Rosen: There are all sorts of conflict issues. Because lobstering is one of the last kind of fisheries in the state, we don't have as many user conflicts as we used to. I'm not old enough to remember any fisheries. Most of the issues now are within lobstering.
For the most part, you'll know everyone who's fishing in the waters around your area, and chances are you'll know the people from other towns or ports that are fishing. If you don't know someone, you probably know someone who knows them. Guys are always nosey or curious to know who's around them.
Venook: How has lobster fishing changed since you were young?
Rosen: I'm not going to claim to represent anyone but myself, but if you stop and take the time to think about how many lobsters are caught, and how many people are fishing them in 2016, and what the fishery used to be, that'll put everything in perspective. Now, you can make a really good living fishing. When a lot of the other guys out here were younger, what's considered a bad haul now was a great haul then. We were almost spoiled in that regard. If you're a younger guy, you haven't really seen what bad is. The lobster population has exploded in recent years.
This year we definitely had a weird, very slow season when people should have been doing really well. All the younger guys are talking about the world ending, and the older guys are were like, “yeah, well, this is more what it used to look like.” The fishery has had its up and down, but it peaked in the lifetime of younger fishermen today, so they always want to do better than the previous year, and you can't. It’s just an unreasonable expectation. The fishery's responding to fishing stress and population stress. The resource gets fished really hard and handled a lot. It's definitely responding to climate change. You're going to see the effects of that in how fish behave.
Right now, for being such a lobster-focused fishery or community, it used to be very diverse, and there were multiple fisheries. People were relying on multiple fisheries for income and now that it's just lobstering, [people] have expectations that it's going to always provide. There's a problem with having that expectation. You can't grow endlessly. There's a limit to it.
Venook: It sounds like for a lot of the island, identity is really wrapped up in lobster fishing.
Rosen: Yeah, and I'd say that the fishery and its identity is just being held onto so tightly that there's a lot of resistance to change, for better or for worse. That's both a blessing and a curse because it makes the community really stubborn and tough but it also makes people incredibly resistant to potential positive change.
It's a strange time to be someone who works in an industry like fishing and pays attention to politics and how it relates to industry. We have people really against trade deals, when trade deals are one of the most important things for our fishery. You can't think a fishery's just going to work in a vacuum. We're incredibly dependent on the global economy. It might have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world, but the European Union almost just banned the import of lobsters based on lobsters being found in Swedish waters and that could have been a $135 million annual loss in exports. There are things that happen all the time that have really hurt. Little coastal Maine communities forget that it's a global product that we trade on a global market, typically in China. [People act like] we're at war with China right now, but China is our largest expanding market.
My hope is that people will always be able to go fishing. There will always be fish and lobsters there to catch, but it's going to take a lot of effort on both industry and management side to work together to make sure it's still profitable and the resource is still strong. Right now, I don't see enough communication or crossover between the two. There's always resistance between the two, but [people] don't want anybody, like scientists, to be involved. Particularly with fishing communities, what I see is change is going to have to be brought on by itself. People are going to have to bang their head against the wall for quite a while. Change isn't happening overnight anywhere, but it seems like it has taken long enough.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a park ranger, a fast-food restaurant manager, and a logger.
This article is part of our Inside Jobs project, which is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.