Former longtime Editor-in-Chief of Food & Wine, Dana Cowin, travels from New York City …
Maine Lobster History
Maine Lobster is one of the oldest continuously operated industries in North America, with the first documented catch dating back to English settlers in the 1600s. But the American lobster did not achieve popularity here until the mid-19th century—at one time, possibly due to the kind of ready availability that doesn’t appeal to elite consumers, lobster was more commonly eaten by the poor. As tastes evolved, however, Maine Lobster gained popularity among a well-to-do audience. The value of the lobster catch increased, and in the 1840s, Maine established its first commercial lobster fishery. The development of a custom-made boat that keeps lobsters alive during transport revolutionized the freshness of North American lobsters. Commercial lobster fisheries began to flourish—and business is still booming today.
Mainers – being the hardy self-sufficient folks they were (and still are) – noticed the growing populartify of their cold-water crustacean and put recent innovations to work:
- A Well Smack – a fishing vessel with a tank that circulated cold seawater – was put to use to ship live lobsters longer distances.
- Adopting a technique that preserved food in tin cans, Mainer’s set up Lobster Canneries and by 1880, canned Maine Lobster surpassed the live product in volume. Canned Maine Lobster was making its way all the way to California.
As a result, the Maine Lobster harvesters thrived and Maine Lobster started to make a name for itself.
Changes and Advancements
As the country became more closely linked by the railroads shipping live lobster all over the nation packed in moist seaweed and ice became a reality. As a result, live lobster shipments from Maine increased and lobster canneries began to shut down. Of course, when air shipment burst onto the scene in the 1950’s, lobsters could leave Maine on Monday and be eaten – fresh –- in California on Tuesday. Much to the delight of our Nation’s gourmand set.
The More Things Changed, The More They Stayed the Same
Modern lobster harvesters operate much like their predecessors did – hauling lobsters by hand in traps. And, just as it was when the industry was in its infancy, lobstering in Maine is often a family affair – techniques and territories are passed from one generation to the next. It’s a close-knit community of harvesters who take care of and watch out for each other.
They also take great care to make certain lobsters are not over-harvested and that breeding stock remains in Maine’s cold clean waters.