Tracking Maine's Crustacean Bounty

State Flush With Lobsters, but Worries About Future Harvests Surface By Michael Powell

Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, November 30, 2003; Page A03

Phil Bramhall, who comes from a family of lobstermen, can pull nearly 200 full traps in one outing. "There's no guarantee we'll make this kind of money forever," he says. (Photos Michael Powell -- The Washington Post)

MUSCONGUS BAY, Maine -- On these chill gray waters, in a small, white boat that pitches and slides, Phil Bramhall plucks gold from the depths. Hauling in wet and muddy lines, he pulls one green wire cage after another off the bay bottom, each crawling with crustaceans. The Maine lobstermen labor long on capricious seas, but these are their glory days. Never in modern times have they harvested so many red-clawed lobsters.

Bramhall, a 44-year-old oak of a man, hauls his 83rd trap of the morning out of the water. He'll pull a hundred more before turning toward shore. "Some days it's cold, it's foggy, you're going from trap to trap by compass, and you think it'd be very nice to be somewhere else," he says over the roar of the ship's engine. "But these last few years, there's a reward for working hard and planning carefully."

This is a paradoxical bounty, however. Everywhere else in New England, the fishing business is a shambles, as catches plummet and fishermen hammer nails, flip fish cakes and draw unemployment. The lobster harvest in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and on Long Island, N.Y., has collapsed, weighed down by disease and precious few larvae, or hatchlings.

But the Maine lobsterman knows no such misery. For 10 years, lobster harvests here -- known as landings -- have gone steroidal. In the 1950s and 1960s, the annual lobster catch averaged 20 million pounds. In 1995, lobstermen hauled in 37 million pounds of crustaceans, worth $101 million.

In 2002, the 7,000 or so lobstermen caught 61 million pounds worth $204 million. This year, some experts expect a slight drop, but still more than 2001 levels.

You can cast back in history books and find 17th-century accounts of lobsters so plentiful that Indians used crustacean carcasses to fertilize their gardens and Colonial wardens served lobster to prisoners. But such vast harvests are unprecedented in modern times and present for scientists a sort of North Atlantic mystery.

"It's a tremendous surge of lobsters, and the jury is very much out on why this has happened," said Richard A. Wahle, a senior research scientist with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in West Boothbay Harbor, a town perched on a promontory fingering into the Atlantic. "Can these harvests be sustained? We don't know."

The future of the Maine lobsterman is wrapped inside the answer to that question. To spend even a few days along this pine-covered coast is to realize that the lobsterman's habitat is more endangered than that of the lobster. Housing prices have exploded, as the East Coast's wealth-laden seek shorefront properties, tearing down lobster cottages and replacing them with mansions.

A new five-bedroom "country gem" in Damariscotta, two hours north of Portland, is on the market for $689,000. A remote two-bedroom "schoolhouse," seven miles from the nearest town, sells at $299,000.

For now, outsize and lucrative lobster harvests have allowed the lobstermen to retain a toehold on the coast, but just barely. Far to the north, on Deer Island, a state planning map shows the island interior owned by lobstermen, and the coastline ringed by the homes of summer residents. In Friendship, a picturesque and tightknit village that tumbles down a hill toward a crystalline bay, most waterfront homeowners are lobstermen -- for now.

The voices heard here come with the hard, flat "a" and the disappearing "r" of the nor'east lobstermen. At day's end, they unload catches on the wharf and collect checks from wholesalers and talk of what's to come.

"It's more a working than a pleasure harbor," said Larry Winchenbach, a white-haired descendant of a long line of lobstermen. "Everyone here is born with lobster-finding genes. But you can feel change coming."

Prowling for Answers
Diane Cowan guides her skiff across Friendship Harbor, a detective hard on the trail of mystery. The 43-year-old marine biologist worked as professor and a waitress before founding the Lobster Conservancy here seven years ago. She lives alone on a roadless island in a solar-powered cottage and dives into the 40-degree waters to explore the lobster's habitat.

Her research and knowledge of local lore help her challenge conventional wisdom. Two years ago, scientists predicted a precipitous decline in the lobster harvest. She dissented. She and the lobstermen were finding a population explosion of young lobsters. "I've tagged the little buggers for years," she said. "The number of baby lobsters settling to the bottom was off the charts."

She was right -- the lobster boom continued. Now she wants to figure out what has caused that boom and what the future holds. Cowan and other scientists point to three factors, each suggestive of an ecosystem out of balance.

Eventually, however, these same conditions that have proved so favorable for Maine's lobsters could put them at risk. Warmer waters in southern New England already have attracted semitropical fish, which are aggressive about stalking lobsters. "There are dramatically more predators in southern New England," said Wahle of the Bigelow labs. "You look underwater there, and lobsters are all holed up in their shelters."

Warm water, too, may carry more pathogens and could account for the disfiguring shell disease found on lobsters in southern New England. The cold waters of the Gulf of Maine, in this view, act as a shield for lobsters.

Finally, scientists speculate that global warming could short-circuit the North Atlantic oscillation, the vast conveyor belt that brings warm ocean water north along the Gulf Current before it cools, sinks and rolls back south. That would result in a sharp drop in temperatures in the north Atlantic and would dramatically slow lobster growth. Lobsters cannot live in waters cooler than 30 degrees. Ocean temperatures dropped sharply last winter.

For now, the lobster apocalypse has yet to materialize. Cowan went diving at night recently and counted 11 lobsters per square meter. "Honestly, at this point, I don't see much to worry about down there," she said. "I'm more concerned about what's happening to the lobstermen."

Ocean Farmers
Bramhall steers his boat through Lobster Gut, a narrow stretch of water between islands dark with fir trees and the deep maroon brilliance of bayberry bushes in bloom. Traps pile high in his stern. He's muddy and tired, and nothing about this life comes cheap. The boats cost $150,000, and bait runs $150 per day. Traps are $55 a piece, and it takes $100 of line to cover 20 traps.

It's a chancy life. Once Bramhall became ensnared, tourniquet tight, in trap lines. Another time, he fell to the bay bottom in 45-degree water. More often, he wanders the ocean grayness in pea-soup fog, swells rising, his stomach flipping. What, a landlubbing reporter asks, is his secret for fighting seasickness?

"I throw up," he said.

Still, his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were lobstermen, and he wouldn't trade the life. He makes a good living -- he's taking his family to Aruba this winter. As Friendship has a population of 1,300 and 162 lobster licenses and eight lobster wholesalers, it's likely that just about every man in town makes a living off crustaceans.

These men are not sea chantey-listening romantics. Bramhall hauls traps as the Doors sing "Come on baby, light my fire" on his radio. Old-timers may reminisce about navigating the seas by smell and the sound of waves echoing off rock reefs, but Bramhall and most of the younger lobstermen are fond of their global positioning systems.

They are custodial about their lobsters. Bramhall measures every lobster and tosses back the undersize youngsters and the females with bellies covered in black eggs. The lobstermen don't disturb the spawning grounds, and they insist on using old-fashioned traps that allow lobsters to escape.

"I'll hear the scientists 'discover' something about the lobster," Bramhall said, "and we'll say, 'Well, we've only known that since the beginning of time.' "

Bramhall's lobstering line has about come to an end. He has two daughters who go out in the boat with him to earn movie and car money, but neither intends to spend a lifetime pulling traps. That's fine with him -- he's more concerned that they have the option of living in Friendship. Building lots here sell at twice the value of a decade back. Should the lobster harvest revert to its smaller, late 1980s form, a lot of young lobstermen are going to have trouble tying ends together.

"I try to tell the younger guys not to overextend themselves with debt," Bramhall said. "There's no guarantee we'll make this kind of money forever. If we're not careful, we'll disappear before the lobsters do."