Executive Chef and Creator of Kith and Kin in Washington D.C., Kwame Onwuachi rolls up …
Traps; Trucks and New Shells
As the days lengthen along Maine’s coast there’s a palpable bustle: everything is on the move. If you take a moment to notice, you can’t help but see it: traps loaded on the back of pickups and trailers, stacked to towering heights; wharves crowded with stacked gear and in the harbors, half the fleet with traps stacked 5+ high as fishermen get ready to set their gear.
I went hauling with Josh Miller late in May – he was in between sternmen and I happily jumped in to help. When I arrived, the wharf was a hive of activity: boats coming in baiting up, loading “gear” (traps, buoys, line) on and heading out for the day. It was a brilliantly warm, clear day with little breeze – the sort of day that holds the promise of summer.
As we steamed out with 36 traps on our stern and I prepped the bait bags, chatter on the VHF was about what the lobsters were doing: “I’m seeing about 25% shedders, over all bottom types;” “I don’t know what they’re doing, there doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it.”
Over the course of the two days I went with Josh, I got an education on what all this meant. Because we had a mild winter, the general assumption has been that the lobsters will come inshore and shed earlier than usual. Each year lobsters migrate inshore to more protected waters to shed their shells, before heading back off shore again in the fall. This is why in the summer, you see harbors and coastlines jammed with buoys but in the winter the inshore waters are clear. Anticipating when the lobsters will come inshore is critical, New Shells make up the bulk of what Maine’s lobster fishermen catch and missing the window of opportunity would be costly.
“We’re going to measure out of the trap,” Josh said as we began hauling. This means that rather than empty the traps and put all those that might be “keepers” in the cull tray to measure and sort after each string, we would measure the lobsters as we picked them out of the trap, putting only definite “keepers” in the cull tray. “I don’t want the hard shells mixed in with the new shells,” Josh said. “They’ll destroy them”.
And so began my education. I felt reasonably confident I could tell the difference between new shell and old shell, but quickly found there was a lot of gray area. Since there is a different price for new shells, they have to be separated – purple bands for old shells, yellow for new shells. “Most new shells have this white line along the outside of their claw,” Josh told me. But not all, I discovered. “That’s a nice spring hard shell,” Josh said when I asked him about a particular lobster whose classification was eluding me. This referred to a lobster that had shed last fall and then buried down in the mud over winter. In general, the difference was clear: old shells were darker, often scarred up and harder, new shells were cleaner, in some cases very soft, and in almost all cases at least soft on the shell so if you squeezed it, it would give without too much pressure. And separating them before they were banded was critical: a new shell caught in the claw of an old shell would be crushed in short order.
After each string (5 pairs of traps, for a total of 10 traps), I counted the lobsters before putting them in the tank and noted how many were old shell and now many were new shell so Josh could record the numbers. We were seeing about 50% of each for most of the day: a higher than usual percentage for late May when usually it’s nearly all old shell. As we got down to the last several strings Josh said “We’ll see mostly old shell in here, this is all hard bottom we’re on now and new shells like softer bottom.” And sure enough, our percentage went from 50/50 to about 90% old shell; 10% new shell.
On the steam in, I scrubbed the buoys from gear we had picked up – 84 traps in total – these were traps Josh had left out all winter which now had to come in for maintenance and new tags (tags identify each trap by its owner and need to be replaced annually by June 1). The VHF chatter continued about where the lobsters were going and what they were doing, interrupted only by a long exchange between Tad and Robert about a 104lb. Halibut Robert had caught several days earlier.
Later that evening, I took a spin in my skiff. The water was flat calm and I headed across the harbor to the wharf. I ran into a local fisherman who had been diving on his propeller. When I asked him how things were going, he shook his head ruefully, “the lobsters,” he said, “they’re driving me nuts, I don’t know what they’re doing.” The Halibut however, was another story. He brought me over to a huge ice chest in the back of his truck filled with a massive Halibut, and all manner of fillets. “Here,” he said “I’ve been wanting to give you some of this,” he handed over a bag of beautiful fillet. I tried halfheartedly to refuse, but left with fillet in hand. When I headed home the sun was just dipping below the horizon, the water glassy and devoid of buoys. In another month, the harbor would be aglow with colorful buoys, the migration inshore in full flood and another season underway.