James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Commercial Lobstering and Start ups: Two Worlds Aligned
In the world of start ups it’s called the valley of death – the time from initial start up to the time when a business is generating revenue. It’s also the time, typically, when business owners are straight out, working all hours and eating and sleeping their business idea. On a recent day hauling with Krista Tripp, who just received her commercial lobstering license, I learned getting started in commercial lobster-fishing shares many similarities to running a start up, namely, it’s hard.
Krista and I had traded text messages sorting logistics; we would haul in the afternoon; after she got in from going as stern man. This was her routine, I gleaned, haul in the morning as sternman, come home, grab a quick bite to eat and a coffee, and then head out and haul her own gear. We had planned to meet at noon at the Spruce Head wharf she fishes from, but part way through the morning I got a text; they were going to be late coming in, she’d meet me at 1. While I waited for Krista (“I’m on my way, just ran home to grab a cup of coffee”), I watched guys coming up over the dock, lunch pails in hand, heading home for the day. Krista had done the same thing; but was now turning around and heading right back down the dock.
Krista greeted me warmly; brought her boat in; we baited up and headed out, “I really want to get these inside traps hauled, then we’ll go outside”. I’d never fished out of Spruce Head; and as we started hauling the inside channel; even I noticed, the tide ran hard. “I have to catch the tide just right in here, it’s tricky to get the timing since I don’t have the flexibility with my schedule.” We hauled a few strings inside and then steamed out, “we’ll come back in and get the other ones inside on our way back, when the tide slacks of a bit.”
I’d had the opportunity to get to know Krista a bit before I went hauling with her; I knew she hailed from a long line of fishermen, and I knew she was persistent. Because of a paperwork snafu, her application did not get in on time after she completed the apprentice program, so she did the only thing she could do, she got on the waitlist for a commercial lobster-fishing license. That was 12 years ago; and in 2016, she finally received her commercial license. When you get your commercial license in Maine, you can start hauling 300 traps, per Department of Marine Resources regulations; each following year, you can add an additional 100 traps until you reach the limit of 800. This structure makes sense in many ways; 800 traps is a lot to manage out of the gate since the max you can have as a student/apprentice is 150 traps. Even going from 150 to 400 is a big jump. By the same token, you can’t make enough money to live just hauling 400, so you really are in the proverbial ‘valley of death’ as you build your business.
Krista’s grandfather had passed away right around the time she got her commercial license, and she was able to purchase his boat, Shearwater, named for a shorebird he was fond of. She has also built up her repertoire of gear (traps, buoys, line). “All this gear, most of it comes from my grandfather, or my brother, I’m glad to have it, it’s not the best gear, but buying gear is so expensive, I don’t know how you’d do it if you were just starting out.” It was true, a new trap runs in the vicinity of $80. Never mind purchasing a boat, and then the daily costs, bait, fuel, sternman.
There was a bit of a breeze and a swell running outside. We worked along, side by side; it had taken me a bit but I’d gotten the feel for how she hauled and we’d managed to gain a few efficiencies. “It’s hard to find someone to go with me, so mostly I’ve been going by myself. It’s great to have the help.” With the shorter September days, it wasn’t long before the light was starting to fade. One of the things I love about working on the water is the changing light; but usually it’s going from dark to light; now it was going from light to dark. “Do you need to get back in? I’d love to get a few more strings hauled if we can.” I assured her I was fine to stay and we kept hauling. By the time we finished the outside gear, the sun was down. We navigated back through the ‘hole in the wall’ a small channel you wouldn’t know existed unless you’d grown up navigating it – it was so tight on every side, you had to hit it just right, especially at low tide. “Tide’s pretty low, but we should be good getting though here.” Krista deftly maneuvered her way through in the fading light. “I love what I do, being outside, the freedom, even though it’s hard, I can’t imagine another life,” she remarked as we sailed through the tight passage out into more open water.
By the time we got back to the channel to haul the remaining strings, it was dark, and starting to get cold; the breeze had not dropped with the setting sun. “I’ve got new flood lights, I guess we’ll get to see if they work,” she said, always a note of enthusiasm in her voice. The lights worked, and we hauled the last inside strings. By the time we got in, sold the lobsters and got the boat moored, it was after 9. I knew with the stretch of fine weather that was coming, she’d be up early hauling again tomorrow; and then, like she had done today, turning right around and heading back down the dock. As she bid me goodnight, her tone belied none if this, she was, as she’d been all day, gracious and steadfast.