Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Earth Day. A Time To Be Proud Of The Maine Lobster Industry

Hauling Maine Lobster Trap
Photo courtesy of Laurie Cates

Today is Earth Day.  A time to reflect on the health of world.  Many of the day's headlines will focus on the need to tackle climate change and protect endangered species.  But Earth Day is also an opportunity to celebrate examples of successful management of our precious natural resources. The Maine lobster industry is one such example. 

While over fishing has sadly led to the decline of other Maine fisheries such as cod, haddock and halibut, smart conservation measures have helped preserve the lobster stock. For every lobster that comes onto the market, approximately three are sent back into the water for conservation. Baited lobster traps on the ocean floor help this brood stock thrive by supplying it with a steady food supply. In many ways, the Maine lobster industry has become a textbook example of how communities successfully protect and defend the resource on which they rely.

The abundance of the Maine lobster catch is due largely to the four critical conservation measures the fishermen, along with government officials, put in place many years ago.  They are as follows:

1. Young lobsters, called juveniles, cannot be harvested. Until they reach a size of over 3.25 inches on the carapace, they must be returned to the ocean. A metal gauge is used to check the carapace size. An average lobster in Maine waters will live and grow for about seven years before it is of harvestable size.

2. Large lobsters, more than five inches on the carapace, cannot be harvested. These lobsters are considered “forever wild” and must be returned to the ocean when caught. As with small lobsters, a metal gauge is used to check the carapace size of large lobsters.

3. Female lobsters that are pregnant (egg-bearing) or marked with a special, man-made notch in their inner right flipper cannot be harvested. They must be returned to the wild. Months or years down the line, if these female lobsters are no longer bearing eggs or have outshed their V-notches, it may be possible to harvest them.

4. All lobsters must be caught in traps—no dragging or diving is allowed. The traps must include escape vents for undersize lobsters, as well as biodegradable escape hatches to free lobsters in lost traps. 

Yes,  climate change is likely also impacting the current abundance of lobsters along the coast of Maine and that is not such a good thing.  But I'm a positive person and this Earth Day I'm choosing celebrate a story of sustainability and add an optimistic headline to world!  Happy Earth Day everyone.  

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Frequently Asked Questions About Maine Lobster Fishing

Maine lobster traps
Lobster traps.  Photo courtesy of Billy Kitchen.

For many Mainers, being part of a lobster fishing community is such a way of life that we take for granted the intimate connection we have with a wild food source.  People “from away” are enthusiastically curious about the process of catching lobsters and what happens during a day out at sea. I grew up working as a sternman on my father's boat during the summer months.  When we returned to dock at the end of the day we would often be greeted by tourists, eager to learn more about our livelihood. I always enjoyed their questions. Some where straight forward, others were amusing and a few were considered a faux pas to people within the lobster community.  

All these questions reflected a desire to know more about one of America's most iconic industries. They were part of my inspiration when I wrote How To Catch A Lobster In Down East Maine. I even included a chapter on Frequently Asked Questions About Lobster Fishing. Below are  answers to some of the common questions about the Maine lobster industry as well as some of the more comical questions fishermen have been asked and the five questions you should never ask a lobster fisherman. 

Maine lobster Buoy
A Maine Lobster Buoy.  Photo Courtesy of Jayson Maker.
Frequently Asked Questions about Lobster Fishing 

How do you find your traps? A fisherman uses uniquely colored buoys to mark the placement of each trap. Navigational equipment or landmarks are used to guide the fisherman to his buoys.

How many lobsters do you get in one trap? The number of lobsters a fisherman catches in a trap will vary dramatically based on the time of year and how the lobsters are running in a certain area. In the spring especially, it’s not uncommon for a trap to come up with no lobsters at all. In the good fall fishing, you can catch as many as ten to twelve lobsters in a single trap. 

How often do you haul your traps? A lobsterman will usually haul each of his traps at least once a week, often several times a week. In peak fishing, some fishermen haul their traps every day.

How many traps do you haul in a day? The number of traps a fisherman hauls in a day varies depending on the weather, tides and time of year. On a light day, a fisherman may haul fewer than fifty traps. On a busy day, he’ll likely haul several hundred.  

What do you do with your traps and boat in the winter? Up to 70 percent of Down East fishermen take up all their traps in the winter months, when the fishing is at its slowest. During this time, the fishermen will perform needed repairs on the traps and repaint his buoys. Some fishermen haul their boats ashore for the winter as well. This is especially the case for fishermen with older or smaller boats. 

Why aren’t lobsters red when you catch them? When people think of lobsters, they most often think of the bright red creatures that are served up on dinner plates. But lobsters only turn red once they are cooked. While alive, a lobster’s shell is a mix of many pigments and looks greenish-brown in color. During the cooking process, however, the heat destroys all the pigments save the red.  

Do lobsters feel pain when you kill them? Lobsters do not feel pain when you cook them, as they have no brain and just a very simple nervous system. In order for an organism to perceive pain, it must have a more complex nervous system. 

Do lobsters cry when you put them in the pot? Lobsters actually don’t have vocal chords or any other means of vocalization so, no, they don’t cry. According to Dr. Robert Bayer, a professor of animal and veterinary sciences at the University of Maine and director of the research organization the Lobster Institute, any noise you might hear while a lobster is cooking is likely air coming out of its stomach through its mouthparts. 

How often do you eat lobster? Some people assume that lobster fishermen eat lobster every day.  Yet each lobster a fisherman brings home to cook is money he must deduct from his weekly wage. So how often do fishermen indulge in lobster? Of the fishermen in my survey, almost 60 percent eat lobster less than once a month.  Only 10 percent of the fishermen I surveyed eat lobster every week. 

Cutler Harbor Lobster Boats
Lobster boats at rest in Cutler. 

The Silliest Questions Down East Lobster Fishermen Have Ever Been Asked 

Fishermen are asked a lot of comical questions from people unfamiliar with a life spent working on the sea. When I surveyed Down East fishermen for my book, they shared with me some wonderful gems, which I have listed below:

  • Why do you park all your boats in the same direction in the harbor?
  • Are they fresh (in reference to the freshly caught lobster)?
  • Do you bring in all your traps every night?
  • Do you ever watch the lobsters going into the traps?
  • Does it hurt if one bites you?
  • Do you catch Alaskan King Crab?

Five Questions You Should Never Ask a Lobster Fisherman

Fishermen are notoriously secretive about the elements of their success. To divulge exactly where they’re fishing and what they’re catching is to reveal their hand and threaten their livelihood. If you wander down onto a dock and engage a fisherman in conversation, there are five questions you should never ask. They are as follows: 

  • How many lobsters did you catch today?
  • How many traps do you fish?
  • How much money do you make?
  • Where is the best fishing?
  • What’s the best haul you’ve had this season?

If you have any other questions you'd like to ask, or anecdotes you'd like to share, please leave me a comment or send me an email.  I would love to hear them!

Friday, 27 March 2015

Exquisite Lobster stew recipe – the secret is in the sherry

Exquisite lobster stew.

Lobster stew can be made with just three ingredients – lobster, butter and milk.  I grew up on this simple version, made occasionally by my mother from left over lobster meat.   

Simple seafood stews and chowders, as I wrote in my article on Julia Child's lobster bisque, are staples in many homes and most restaurants along Maine’s rocky coast.  The famous chef Jasper White even described lobster stew as “mother’s milk” for Downeast families in his book, Lobster At Home. It is our ultimate comfort food.

Recently I have had the opportunity to experience and experiment with more dynamic versions of lobster stew, which use cream, stock and sherry to add richness and depth to the dish.  I have had the pleasure of dining at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport and enjoying their award-winning lobster stew. It was so good it gave me goose bumps.  When I asked the waitress what the secret was to achieving such an exquisite taste she replied, 'it's all that sherry!'  

I have also constructed my own version of lobster stew, inspired by various descriptions of the popular Jordan Pond House recipe. While stock and cream certainly contribute to the below recipe's flavor, it is the sherry, in combination with the lobster, that plays the starring role.  Especially when you are working from previously frozen lobster meat as I often have to do, a healthy dash of sherry helps lift the flavor of the lobster and take the stew to a new level of lusciousness.    

Ingredients for a delicious lobster stew.

Lobster Stew Recipe

Adapted from the Jordan Pond House lobster stew recipe.


Meat of one small lobster (note: I had to work from previously frozen lobster but recommend using fresh lobster if possible)
3 tablespoons of butter
2 cups of milk
1 cup of light cream
½ cup of sherry
1 tablespoon of stock or seafood base (I used some previously frozen leftover stock from a lobster bisque I'd made) 
3 and ½ tablespoons of butter
white pepper
black pepper


Cook the lobster. Remove the meat and cut it into bite-sized chunks.  Heat three tablespoons of butter in a frying pan. Add the lobster and seafood stock (or base) to the pan, sprinkle with paprika and sauté on a low heat for about 6 minutes. Add the sherry and cook for another four minutes. Add a dash of white pepper, salt and pepper then remove from the heat. 

Add the milk and cream to a saucepan and cook under low heat until scalded (until tiny bubbles form on the edges of the saucepan but without letting the milk come to a boil). Pour the scalded milk/cream mixture into your saucepan of sauteed lobster (you may want to adjust how much of the mixture you use, depending how much lobster you have.  I didn't pour in all my milk/cream mixture). 

If time permits, let the stew chill in a refrigerator over night or sit in a double boiler for an hour or so to enrich the flavor (while I always use a double boiler to enhance the flavor of my lobster newburg, I ate this lobster stew directly after it was cooked and it still tasted amazing).

Enjoy!  If you would like to read about other classic lobster soup recipes, here is a lobster bisque recipe and here is a lobster bouillabaisse recipe.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Official 2015 Maine Lobster Boat Racing Schedule

Maine lobster boat racing.  Photo courtesy of Billy Kitchen.

The official 2015 Maine Lobster Boat Races schedule has just been posted and I am sharing it below along with a few notes (some of them courtesy of Travis Otis).

The 2015 Maine Lobster Boat Race Schedule

Boothbay Harbor: June 20th.  This is a points race and best viewed via boat.

Rockland: June 21st.  This is a points race and best viewed via Rockland Breakwater.  This race has good prizes and draws a nice crowd of local boys and big boats from the surrounding islands. Expect lots of rafting up and partying.

Bass Harbor: June 28th.  This is a non-points race, best viewed via boat. A blessing of the fleet takes place after the races.

Moosabec Reach: July 4th.  This is a points race best viewed via the Beals Island bridge. This is perhaps the most iconic race of the season as Maine lobster boat racing as we know it originated in these sheltered waters between Jonesport and Beals Island.  The races are always highly competitive and the towns host Fourth of July events alongside the racing.

Searsport: July 11th.  This is a points race and best viewed from Mosman Park or the town landing.

Stonington: July 12th.  This is a points race and best viewed via boat.  A pancake breakfast is held before the races and crab meat rolls are served in the odd fellows hall after (you haven't lived until you've had a Stonington crab meat roll)!

Friendship: July 19th.  This is a points race best viewed via boat.

Harpswell: July 26th.  This is a points race best viewed via boat.

Winter Harbor: August 8th.  This is a points race best viewed via boat.  The races form part of a wider Downeast Maine Lobster Festival held in the town that day.  The festival itself is well worth a visit and includes a pancake breakfast, parade and lobster dinner.

Long Island: August 15th.  This is a points race best viewed via boat.

Portland/Pemaquid: August 16th.  The Pemaquid race is a non-points race best viewed from the top of the tower at Pemaquid Colonial Park.  The races form part of the Eastport Pirate Festival which includes everything from live music and fireworks to lobster crate races, parades and a 'friendly' invasion of the neighboring town of Lubec.  A wonderful, festive experience.  The Portland race is a points race and best viewed from Fort Allen Park. The Portland lobster boat races form part of the MS Harborfest Weekend, which also includes a regatta and a tug boat muster.

Feel free to add comments or insights to the above or to share your experience of any of the races you attend!