Lobster on the Move
By Merritt Carey, Maine Brand Ambassador and Community Relations Manager
Maine’s winters are notoriously long. The color and activity that dot our shore and our harbors all summer long are absent. In the warmer months, on any given morning when you look out from shore, you see lobster fishing boats hauling their “gear” (what fishermen call the traps, lines and buoys), and a rainbow of buoys. In the winter, a glance out from shore gives way to an often gray stretch of water; absent are the lobster boats and the colorful buoys. This is partly due to the fact that many fishermen take their gear out for the winter, haul their boats, and spend their time ashore. But the primary reason there are no buoys close to shore is because there are no lobsters in shore in the winter; lobster fishing that’s done through the winter months is off shore.
Lobsters generally like the cooler water found further off shore. In the summer, they migrate into the protected waters of the shore to molt or shed their shell. If you spend anytime on a fishing wharf you will hear the colloquial term “shedders” – these are the lobsters that have just shed their shell, and what Maine fishermen catch throughout the summer and fall months. The meat in “New Shells” (the official name for shedders) is more tender, and sweeter, and because of the seasonality of the Canadian lobster fishing season, Maine is basically the only place you can get new shells.
At Luke’s in Tenants Harbor, we have a live lobster tank in the shack. All summer, it gurgles and bubbles, pumping seawater up through the tank. The tank itself is divided into sections – guests can buy fresh live lobster – hard shell or new shell, various sizes. One morning I went to check the lobsters in the tank and noticed what I thought was a very strange looking lobster in the hard shell section of the tank. I quickly realized it was a shell that had been shed. I found the lobster that had once belonged to the shell and picked it out of the tank. Its shell was like paper; I had to hold it gently so as not to damage it, and it could not lift its claws, the shell was so soft. I put it in its own section of the tank so it wouldn’t get injured by the other lobsters.
A few days after discovering that lobster, Bill, who manages our wharf here in Tenants Harbor, came through the shack door with a lobster in hand. “Merritt, this lobster was caught and brought in but it’s too soft to be crated, you want to keep it up here until it hardens up?” And so one of my tank sections because the super-soft lobster section. A sort-of lobster rescue pen. I spent days telling kids or any guest who cared to listen about the lobster and how it had shed (“RIGHT IN THE TANK!” – it seemed like magic to me, and I myself couldn’t shed my child-like enthusiasm for this apparent miracle). I would pick up the soft lobster, then the shell, which I had saved, and share the story. Guests who came for a simple lobster roll, got a big side dish of education on the migratory pattern of lobsters and our seasonal new shell fishery. Again and again I told this story until the lobster hardened up and the old shell broke apart. Around that time, a fisherman brought in a magnificent blue lobster for me to keep in the tank, and Bill brought up a calico lobster, so I started showing off those lobsters.
Those warm easy days of summer seem impossible now looking out over snow and ice to the slate gray water. But slowly activity will pick up along our coast. The first sign will be trucks hauling trap trailers loaded to the brim. You’re liable to notice these when you’re late for an appointment and you get behind one, on a single lane road, as it carefully navigates along with its load of 100+ traps neatly stacked. Then you’ll hear talk of the lobster starting to move – on the VHF radio lobstermen use to talk on; and on wharfs, and then with the rush of warm weather and the bursting of spring, the colorful buoys will arrive once more at our shore, shimmering in the long evening light.