James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Amateur Moves: The One that Got Me
My alarm went off at 4am. I had to be at the wharf by 5, but I wanted enough time to have a cup of coffee and—more importantly—I wanted to Google images of male and female lobsters to make sure I could tell them apart. By the end of my first day lobstering, I was still not always able to tell the difference. Today, I wanted to nail it, with a little help from Google. To my surprise and dismay, I came up short. I would have to learn the old-fashioned way: practice.
Still, when I stepped aboard Storm Walker an hour later, I felt the exhilaration of anticipation but without the nervousness of my first attempt. More sure of my role, I was hopeful I might indeed be a help this time.
We started hauling right away, and I fell right back into the rhythm—haul a string, bait and band, repeat. I was happy to learn that, despite my uncertainty and after a few strings, I could distinguish between the ladies and the gents with relative ease. I wasn’t putting my keepers in a separate bin for John to inspect; I just gave him the few I was a little uncertain about, either because they were close size-wise, or because they were females whose flippers needed to be re-notched or had irregularities.
In Maine, lobsters are heavily protected in order to ensure their sustainability. One important piece of maintaining the lobster population is protecting the females who can carry eggs—lobstermen are required to cut a “V-notch” on a certain flipper of every female carrying eggs. If you haul a female that’s a “keeper” in terms of size but has a V-notch, you have to throw her back—if she’s carried eggs before, she’s likely to do so again. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if what you see is actually a V-notch or just an irregularity in the flipper, but in either case, she goes back. This is why being able to tell the males from the females is so important—with the males, you’re just checking size, but with the females, you’re checking for a V-notch or irregularity and for size. It’s all happening with rapid-fire speed, with the lobsters trying to pinch anything they can. Only a female that is big enough and has no irregularity on the notching flipper—the one to the right of the middle flipper—may be kept. If you watch a lobsterman emptying his trap, you’ll see the first thing he does is flip the lobster over to check its sex.
On my first day, not only did I get pinched a few times, but often the lobster I was holding would manage to get ahold of my wet weather gear, or the string that fastened my measuring tool to the boat. This didn’t hurt, but it slowed me down, because they don’t like to let go. Today, my pace was brisker and more assured. I was more savvy about how I held the lobsters, and by mid-day had managed to keep my fingers and other grabbable bits away from their claws. I was able to measure and sort more efficiently, allowing us to pull a string more quickly.
Maybe my newfound confidence made me less vigilant, or maybe I just got unlucky, but a lobster finally got me—and it was not letting go. He—or she, I never knew—had me right above the joint on my left thumb and held on. When I had been pinched before, I had always managed to get the lobster off myself, but not this time. Soon John and Levi, who had been productively emptying the trap, noticed my predicament and assisted. First Levi tried to pry it off with the banding tool, then John tried to pry it off with his hands. I was the proverbial damsel in distress—not exactly the look I was going for. With some effort, John managed to pry the claw open and tossed the lobster back in the water—after all my suffering, it wasn’t even a kepper. The whole thing had taken less than a couple minutes, but felt much longer. And hurt. But I kept mum, grateful for my stiff-upper-lip New England upbringing.
As always, Levi and John both regarded my faux pas with humor and graciousness. I was thankful for their nonchalance, but still could feel my cheeks burn.
Partway through the day, I took a moment to check my phone. A text from my husband read,“Please bring lobsta home – we’re planning a lobsta /clam bake”. At the end of the day, as we unloaded at the “Smack,” a barge with a float off its stern where the lobsters are unloaded and weighed, we set 10 lobsters aside for me to take home. That night, when I walked through the door with my bucket of freshly caught new shell lobsters, I got an extra-warm reception from my family— and a delicious summer meal followed.