Back to School: A Summer of Hands On Education

October 14, 2016 | By: Merritt Carey

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With summer in the rear view mirror, my three children are all back at school. The first day jitters, excitement about seeing friends, new back packs, lunch boxes and days filled with soccer practices, music lessons and the like, all part of September’s routine.  Just a few short weeks ago, though, my kids were immersed in another kind of education, one that for many fishing families along coastal Maine is second nature, but for my family was an indoctrination: being student lobster-fishermen.

The lobster fishery is what’s known as a “closed fishery”. This means that you can’t simply purchase a commercial license. If you’re a Maine resident, you can get a recreational license to haul 5 traps, but you can’t sell any of your catch.  The only way to get a commercial lobstering license is through Maine’s student apprentice program, which is open to full time students between the ages of 8-22 who are Maine residents.  In order to participate, student apprentices must have a commercial fisherman to sponsor them and must declare a fishing zone (Maine has 5 distinct fishing zones, A-G, that run East-West along the coast).

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Generally speaking, commercial lobster-fishermen in Maine may have up to 800 traps. Student trap limits are set by age: 8-10 up to 10 traps, 11-13 up to 50 traps and 14-22 up to 150 traps. If students complete the apprentice program (minimum of 24 months; documenting 1,000 hours, 200 fishing days and completion of US Coast Guard fishing drill conductor course), they are eligible to receive a commercial fishing license. As I learned, when you apply for a student apprentice license, in addition to a license number, you’re applying for trap tags: in my case 30 for Liam (age 13) and 10 for Madeleine (age 9). My youngest daughter, Grace (5), was, much to her dismay, too young to participate. The application requires each student to list their buoy color (Madeleine, pink and green; Liam, red).  Students (or parents in my case) pay a nominal application fee and $0.50/per tag.

With the paperwork dutifully completed (my husband’s astute observation: “you’re not really a paperwork girl, are you?”), the next task was setting about gear preparation: another piece of the industry I had only a vague understanding of. As any parent knows, however, if your kids are involved, you’re involved. And so I found myself buying paint, helping my daughter tie her buoys up to paint them (“only use a little paint, don’t dip the brush ALL the way in”). Getting my kids to do their gear prep felt a little like trying to get them to do their homework: getting them started was a challenge, but once they got going, they got down to business. We hung the buoys on our soccer goals to paint – Liam painted a few, shot a few goals, painted a few more.

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Trap tags; gear prep, not only did I know very little; when it came time to begin setting and hauling the traps, since I don’t have a commercial lobster-fishing license, legally I wasn’t supposed to touch their traps or handle any of the lobsters they caught (this proved advantageous from time to time “I can’t help you – it’s illegal!”).  As a result, my kids were particularly reliant on their commercial sponsors – Peter and Josh Miller – father and son – with whom I had worked over the past year to help set up the Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-op. Both Peter and Josh were extraordinarily generous with their time and knowledge.  My daughter Madeleine became fast friends with Josh’s two daughters, and often hauled her traps with them under Josh’s tutelage. Peter spent hours helping my kids get their gear ready, showing them how to tie bowlines, affix buoys to traps, set traps, measure lobsters, tell male lobsters from female lobsters, check for v-notches, determine if a lobster was a keeper, and, finally, how to take their catch to the co-op’s buy float and sell their lobsters.

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Like most things we embark on with our kids, the season didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned, but it had its moments of grace: my son Liam (an avid fisherman) catching mackerel to use as bait so he wouldn’t have to pay for it; spending days out in the flat bottomed wooden skiff hauling and resetting his traps; talking excitedly about what he’d caught and calculating how much money he’d earned (the co-op pays weekly and I found satisfaction in seeing my son’s name on a paycheck, no matter how small). By the end of the season, I could see in him the roots of knowledge: tide, wind, weather and a burgeoning confidence on the water. And then there was the time I got with my kids: while I couldn’t technically help with the hauling, I could drive the skiff. And I logged hours doing that with all three kids, but especially Madeleine and my youngest daughter Grace, who tagged along on every lobstering excursion we took, planning ahead for when she could have her own traps and buoys (“mine will be pink, but a brighter pink than Madeleine’s”). On the drive back from Tenants Harbor Labor Day weekend, after Peter had helped Liam haul his traps for the season, the talk among Liam and his friends was how many traps for next year and could he buy a bigger skiff with a hauler.

A few nights ago, I was reading a book called Swimmy by Leo Lionni to my daughter Grace. “Swimmy” is a fish whose aquatic adventures include encounters with sea creatures of all kinds. At one point, Swimmy encounters a lobster on the ocean floor. When I had finished reading about the lobster, Grace turned to me and asked “do you think it’s a keeper Mama?”

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