So how do the fishermen catch all these yummy lobsters? John and I went on a trip on a lobster boat while we were here in Portland to find out.
The boat we went out on was called the "Lucky Catch". It is a tourist trip run from the main harbour to give you an idea how it all works. The boat we went on had about 15 people on. As we left the harbour we passed two or three huge fishing vessels, these were herring boats. The only thing they catch is herring and all the herring is used for is bait for the lobster traps. Even with a herring fishing fleet on the doorstep, there is still sometimes a shortage of bait for the traps.
Our lobster boat the "Lucky Catch"
These are the herring boats that catch the bait
What the fishermen did tell us is that a lot of the buoys do get cut through by boats. We have always done our best to avoid the pots as you feel very guilty about damaging them as it is someone's livelihood, but we were told that they would prefer that people like us, with rope cutters attached to their boat propellor, cut through the lines, rather than other boats dragging the pots. All the GPS positions of the pots are marked on the fishermens' charts and they can find them without the buoys, but if they have been dragged out of position they can often be lost. This made us feel a bit better as sometimes the pots are difficult to avoid.
The first job was to get 'kitted up' in a rather fetching orange plastic apron, with matching gloves, then on the the real job, filling the bait bags. Each trap has a bag of about 5 herrings attached to inside it to attract the lobsters. Once that was done we had to haul up the first traps, by winch. Each buoy can have up to 5 pots attached to it.
Not entirely sure orange is my colour!
Loading the bait bags with herrings
What we realised is that the lobster boat men are "farming" lobsters in the wild. What happens is that the lobster pots are a source of food for the lobsters. From a very young age, the lobsters come to the pots for a free meal. Each pot has a couple of escape hatches just big enough for the smaller lobsters to escape. In fact, the fishermen are feeding the lobsters which learn to eat from the traps from a young age and will keep doing so until they are full grown. When they are full grown, they are harvested for the cooking pot. Bearing in mind that it takes up to seven years for a lobster to grow to the correct size, it makes you wonder how many times each lobster is caught and thrown back, before it becomes a 'keeper'. Once on the boat, the lobsters are removed and measured. The body of the lobster must measure 3 3/4 inches from the eye socket to the end of their body. The fisherman have a special tool on board for this, so there can be no dispute about the size. All the smaller lobsters that haven't already escaped are thrown back in.
The sex of a lobster is a also a factor in determining whether they are a 'keeper'. Not all females will breed, so those that do, and you can see the eggs in the tail, are marked by a 'v' shaped nick in their tail and returned to the water, this tells other fishermen that they ought to be thrown back in.
Hauling the traps on board
Once the traps are emptied and the lobsters measured, the traps are re-baited and thrown back overboard. Some lobsters will only have one claw, if perhaps they have been fighting etc, these are called culls and will generally be thrown back, as the claw will re-grow. Some fishermen will also throw back soft shell lobsters. A lobster grows a new shell each year, which starts soft and grows hard. Some people prefer the soft shell as the meat is sweeter, but as a fisherman the hard shell is more valuable as there is more meat.
Captain Dave measuring the catch
A crab caught in the trap - the crabs here are not eaten, they supposedly don't taste very good
John banding the lobster before it goes in the tank
The lobsters are kept on board in a vivarium to keep them fresh. A vivarium is a tank, like an aquarium, but has a constant supply of running water to keep the lobsters alive. So that they can't kill each other in the tank, their claws are banded with a special tool.
Having caught our lobster, the next stage was to cook and eat it. You can buy a lobster off the boat at the current boat price, which in Thursday was $4/lb. We bought a 1 1/4lb lobster each for a grand total of $10, and went to the Portland Lobster Co. This restaurant has a deal with the boat that they will cook your lobster and provide the side orders for $10. So we had two lobster dinners, with baked potato, coleslaw and corn on the cob for $30, a cheap night out. The lobster was steamed and was absolutely delicious! It was a glorious evening, so we sat outside at a picnic table eating lobster and drinking wine, does it get any better than that?
John with our dinner - he managed to frighten a few small children when walking to the restaurant by waving the live lobsters at them!!