James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
On the Water, at Home
If you’ve spent any length of time along the coast of Maine, chances are you’ve intersected with the lobstering economy. I spent my childhood summers in Tenants Harbor, a small fishing village that sits at the mouth of Penobscot Bay. I woke to the sound of lobster boats heading out each morning, the low diesel rumble cutting across the glassy pre-dawn water. At age 10, my father arranged for me to operate a lobster delivery service out of Cod End, the local fish market.
It was called “Merritt’s Delivery Service,” and each evening I headed out in my 13-foot whaler to take orders for cooked lobsters and clams from cruising sailboats in the harbor. I’d return to Cod End, where they’d cook up the lobsters for me to deliver. Later, I worked the dock at Cod End, fueling vessels, bringing ice down, and occasionally working in the market itself. Cod End was operated by Mrs. Miller, whom I revered for her quiet intelligence and steadfast demeanor. Her husband and sons lobstered while her daughters helped run the market. Over the years, I got to know each of them to varying degrees, though they all shared their mother’s reserved manner. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the Miller family, their work ethic and their seemingly infinite knowledge of all things maritime fostered in me a deep respect and an enduring love for the trade.
Long after I stopped working at Cod End, I would still stop in each summer. Occasionally, I would run into one of the Miller boys—there was Hale unloading at the wharf, Peter sitting with his father on the Cod End deck. It was Peter, the one I knew the best of the boys, who offered to take me out for a day this summer.
And so I found myself at 5am walking down the ramp, its railing smooth and familiar, to the dock I’d worked so many years ago. Peter’s boat, Sasha, was smaller and its operations different than what I was used to. But here I knew the water and the surroundings. The sun just coming up, we headed out of the harbor. There was my childhood cottage, and Southern Island, with its bell buoy—where, our family lore has it, my great grandfather left my grandmother for the day, banished for some transgression, while the rest of the family went off to picnic on an island.
I planted myself in front of the crates of bait and began stuffing bait bags, six or eight herring to a bag, cinched with a bait iron. There were four crates, some 750 pounds, and I worked my way through all of them. I thought of Mrs. Miller, who had first taught me to keep my head down and simply work—a skill that has served me well throughout my life—and did so again that morning.
Peter hauled mostly single traps, with a few pairs mixed in further off shore. Hauling singles, as opposed to the 10 per trawl I was more accustomed to, changed the pace and rhythm of the work. I asked Peter why he hauled just doubles and singles—which seemed inherently inefficient to me—and learned that here only 3 traps per trawl were allowed. In Casco Bay, they can fish 12 per trawl, and the lawyer in me drove me to research this apparent discrepancy.
It turned out my law degree was handy in navigating the myriad of laws and regulations that govern the commercial lobstering industry. I learned that the Maine coast is divided into seven lobster management zones, A through G, running east to west and all with different trap limits (total number of traps allowed to be set) as well as different regulations governing how many traps can be set on one trawl. These complex regulations, known intuitively to every lobsterman, are what preserve and sustain the fishery.
As we came back into the harbor through the familiar cut between Southern and Northern islands, an easterly breeze had picked up and it began to rain. Heading in, Peter reminded me he had taken me out lobstering years ago, my 14-year-old self eager to learn, self conscious and undoubtedly trying to impress. As he dropped me off and I made my way up the familiar Cod End wharf, I realized when it came to lobstering—my 46-year-old self wasn’t that different from my 14-year-old self.