Trap Day on Monhegan

SLIDE SHOW: Trap Day on Monhegan No one goes till everyone goes. That’s the way it’s always been on Trap Day on Monhegan, when the island’s lobstermen first set their traps off the darkened shoreline of one of Maine’s most storied offshore […]

By Philip Conkling

Aug 19 2009

Lobster boat heads out

Lobster season has begun on Monhegan Island

Photo Credit : Ralston, Peter

SLIDE SHOW: Trap Day on Monhegan

No one goes till everyone goes. That’s the way it’s always been on Trap Day on Monhegan, when the island’s lobstermen first set their traps off the darkened shoreline of one of Maine’s most storied offshore communities.

Over the years, Monhegan has maintained very different lobstering traditions from anywhere else on the Maine coast. To begin with, since 1998 Monhegan has had its own vigilantly guarded, jealously regarded fishing zone: in an area arcing two miles from its shores to the north, east, and west and three miles out to sea to the south’ard.

For another, 90 years ago Monhegan’s lobstermen voluntarily established their own ban on harvesting small lobsters–a harbinger of lobster management for the entire coast. Then they agreed among themselves to limit the number of fishermen who may set traps as well as the number of traps each of them may set in his or her zone, in order to conserve their lobster stocks and prevent overfishing.

And lastly, Monhegan’s lobstermen fish primarily in winter, when other lobstermen have already hauled their gear out and when the market’s supply of lobsters is low, but prices are higher.

A lot has changed in Maine’s lobstering communities, including Monhegan’s, but the most important traditions around Trap Day haven’t changed in the past century.

On September’s last day, islanders begin re-enacting old rituals as Monhegan’s fleet of rusted, unmuffled pickup trucks lumber down to the wharf, swaying like ancient beasts under their towering loads of traps, retrieved from cluttered dooryards and beneath spruce trees all around the village. Watching this progression, Sherm “Shermie” Stanley, now one of the island’s most experienced captains, dryly remarks, “All the trucks are getting lopsided … like the lobstermen.”

Down at the harbor, they stack their lots of 300 wire traps apiece, neatly coiled lines, and color-coded buoys, each on his or her assigned area of the congested town wharf. Monhegan’s dozen lobster boat captains include two women. Chris Cash, the older of the two female captains and three months pregnant, fishes from the Priscilla Earl, a long, narrow-beamed wooden boat with a pedigree from a successful Cranberry Isles fisherman. Her pickup is emblazoned with an advertisement from her summer island business, “Cash Rentals.”

Amid the bustle on the wharf, community members, friends, relatives, and visitors get into the swing of Trap Day–literally. As traps are added to the pile, you marvel at how even slightly built men and women carefully use the sinew, bone, and rhythm of their bodies to hoist them into place. The most graceful grab the top of a trap with both hands, roll it up onto their thighs, and then in one swift movement, lift it overhead while snapping their backs forward to pitch it higher.

Once the wharf is transformed into a landscape of wire high-rises, an elegant dance begins around the edges, as boats maneuver alongside to move traps from wharf to vessel on the afternoon’s high tide. By the end of the day, each lobsterman and his team will have moved about 10 tons of traps three times: from dooryard to pickup, from pickup to wharf, and from wharf to stern, 70 pounds at a time.

Robert Bracy slips his 42-foot Pandora into place at the end of the wharf. He loads his traps 12 on edge in four rows, six courses high, with the final handful riding the gunnels, tipped inboard for stability. Bracy’s young son, Wyatt, comes down to the wharf in his lobster pajama top and climbs proudly into the pilothouse to watch his father hoist the last traps aboard before they head out together to the mooring, where the Pandora will ride fully loaded until daybreak tomorrow, October 1, when the season officially begins.

Sherm Stanley pilots his 40-foot black-hulled Young Brothers lobster boat, Legacy, into a loading spot at the front of the wharf. Sherm’s com-patriot, Doug Boynton, who has been fishing from Monhegan for almost 40 years and is now something of an elder statesman among the island’s lobstermen, eyes Stanley’s load of new, wider wire traps. “How am I going to compete with these big traps?” Boynton asks rhetorically. Stanley smiles: “I hope you can’t.”

For more than a century, Trap Day was January 1. Several years ago the lobstermen pushed it back a month. In 2007, the islanders again appealed to Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources to extend the season by two months by establishing October 1 as Trap Day.

The reason was the disturbing reality that despite all of their conservation efforts, they were catching fewer lobsters. They knew Monhegan’s continued existence was at stake, since the island’s winter economy depends almost entirely on lobsters. Declining lobsters, declining community.

For years here, as Maine’s lobster harvests increased, a vital element of faith among lobstermen was that the harder you fished–the more often you hauled your traps–the more lobsters you caught and the more money you could make. From 1987 through 2003, Maine’s lobster catches increased from some 20 million pounds to 90 million pounds. But then after an astounding 25 years of increasing harvests, lobster landings began descending, by 2007 down to 56 million pounds, a 40 percent drop.

The Commissioner of Marine Resources agreed to extend Monhegan’s lobstering season. But the lobstermen had to cut their trap numbers in half–from 600 to 300–a bitter pill to swallow. But science promised hope. For six weeks in the fall of 2005, seven Monhegan lobstermen participated in a study by Maine’s top lobster biologist, Carl Wilson, to determine how trap density was affecting lobster catches. It turned out–mirabile dictu–that the highest lobster catches per unit of effort came not from the areas of highest trap densities, but from medium-density areas. Furthermore, the costs of fuel and bait were substantially lower in the study’s medium-density areas.

Although most of Monhegan’s lobstermen believed they had signed on to a Faustian bargain with the Department of Marine Resources, at the end of the 2007-2008 lobster season, their new trap limit and extended season proved successful.

Looking ahead, however, the future is much less certain. As the recession deepens, declining consumer demand, record-low catch prices, and the rising costs of fuel, bait, and other necessities signal a renewed struggle for economic survival for Monhegan’s isolated community, durable but ultimately fragile.

As the last few crews load their traps aboard waiting vessels, the rest of the fleet bob at their moorings in the waning fall light. Doug Boynton scrambles on top of his traps on the Alice B and fixes the last stabilizing poles in place. They’ll keep the load secure and ensure that all his traps meet state requirements, since marine wardens will likely be patrolling the fleet in the morning.

One of Boynton’s crew members, Dr. Robert Stahl, a physician who spends May to November on Monhegan, remarks, “Don’t you think we’d be better off if they stopped regulating fishing so much and started regulating banks more?” On the wharf, Mattie Thomson finishes loading his boat. “Now we go home and bag bait,” he sighs, mindful of the increasing costs of doing business. “Just stuff the bait bags about the size of a softball,” he instructs his crew. “Don’t make ’em huge.”

In the predawn light of the following morning, each captain and his crew ride uneasily aboard their vessels, waiting for the first faint hint of the break of day, heralding the beginning of a new and much-anticipated season. The excitement in this small anchorage is palpable in the crackle of nervous banter over the VHF radios. The most experienced captains will head to Monhegan’s exposed backshores to set their traps close in to the underwater cliffs, where the first day’s lobster hauls are always legendary.

Then as the gray dawn slowly opens, the radio crackles again with Sherm Stanley’s laconic transmission: “Let’s go.” Everyone throttles up and leans into the unknown of a new season.

Read more on the maritime culture and conservation of Maine’s offshore