Feeling the Pinch in Maine
MATINICUS, Maine--It was going to be an embarrassing day. We just didn’t know it yet.
All Michael and I knew that foggy morning in Matinicus was that lobstermen start their day early, so we hurriedly -- and mistakenly -- shoved down breakfast at the island's only B&B. (The two-mile-long strip of land about 25 miles off the coast is a smudge on the map, small enough that there are a lot of onlys – the only store, the only cab driver, the only airstrip).
I checked the clock: 6:50 a.m.
We downed the last of our coffee, took an English muffin to go and started walking down a dirt road toward the dock where we had planned to meet Clayton Philbrook at 7 a.m. The 57-year-old lobsterman, whose father lived off the sea before him and whose sons will continue to live off it after him, had agreed to let us spend the day lobster fishing with him. All seven hours.
Here in Matinicus, lobstering is not a sport; it’s a source of both income and pride. On front lawns, buoys hang like ornaments from trees.
Almost all of the 50 or so residents who live on the island year-round are fishermen or married to one. You almost have to be. Life here can be as brutal as it is giving, jagged as it is smooth. Groceries are flown in from the mainland only when weather permits and pregnant women are sent off the island about a month before they give birth because there is no doctor (no police chief and no priest, either).
There are only men and women used to making a living based on the ocean’s whims, pulling into the dock rich one day and poor another. Lately, there seem to be more poor days than rich ones. The lobstermen (who include a few women) aren't only at the mercy of the sea’s moods, but also of the economy’s. They say that not only are fewer people dining on the costly crustaceans at restaurants, but fewer cruise ships and resorts are serving them and Canadian processing plants, which did not get their usual funds from recession-pounded Icelandic lenders, are no longer buying in the volume they once did.
“Summer visitors don’t understand any of this,” said Ann Mitchell, who is married to a lobsterman and runs the island’s only taxi service with an old Ford Explorer that leaks when it rains. (She calls it her “Ford Exploder.”) “But when you live with a fisherman, you understand fully what’s at stake.”
You understand -- even if you can’t accept it -- how a dispute over fishing territory and cut traps escalated to the point that one lobsterman shot another in the neck this summer. It was the most serious of several conflicts that have occurred on the island over ocean ground that can’t be fenced off like farmland. Another time, a man reportedly dropped raccoons on the island, which in turn, killed much of the pheasant population.
Part of the tension stems from the lobstermen's unofficial order. They vote on who can -- and who can't -- fish in these seas. Often, their decision is respected. But sometimes it's not. They are hoping the state will give them official control of the waters, which they say will allow them to limit fishing to residents and protect what amounts to their only industry.
“If we don’t do something like that, we’re going to lose this town,” Philbrook said, adding that other islands have healthy tourist industries to keep them going. “We don’t. This is it for us.”
When he arrived to pick us up that morning, the water was alive with activity on other boats, including one his son owned. Its name: "Destitute."
“He bought it last year about the time everything went to hell,” Philbrook said. “He was looking for a synonym for poor and just went through the dictionary.”
But is destitute the right word for the lobster industry?
“It certainly was last year,” Philbrook said, adding that this season has just begun. “We won’t know about this year until the year is over.”
So far, it isn't looking good. On a recent day that might have brought in $4 for every pound of lobster two years ago and $3.70 a year ago, Philbrook earned $2.75. His stern man, Craig Macleod, 51, said that a few years ago, he earned an average of $700 for a day’s work and once took in $1,300. (Because lobster fishing is seasonal, what the fishermen make in a few months must last them all year).
“Today,” said the former rugby coach from New Zealand, “I’ll make a couple hundred.”
Macleod, whose wife is a professor at George Washington University, has lived on the island for five years. When he’s not fishing, he’s fixing up a house near the dock, where he and his wife hope to open a breakfast shop.
“I’d be done already,” if it weren’t for the economy, Macleod said.
“I know a couple guys who lost their boats to the bank," Philbrook said. "Before that, I don’t think I ever heard of anybody losing their boats.”
The fog hung thickly that morning, making it impossible to see farther than 250 feet. Philbrook drove, scanning the horizon for the identifying colors of his buoys--green, yellow and orange. When he found one, he’d lug the 30-plus-pound trap onto the deck and slide it to Macleod, who would then separate the acceptable lobsters from those that needed to be thrown back. Too small and they were returned to the water. A notch in their tails, indicating they were females that another fisherman found with eggs, and back they went as well. The fraction that made the cut went into a bin where Macleod bound their claws with rubber bands.
Like this, in an impressive rhythm, the men worked for hours. Traps came onboard, their bait empty, and within minutes, they were filled with a ball of fresh fish and tossed back into the water ready to lure a new catch.
We were about an hour into the trip -- rocking back and forth -- when I realized I hadn’t heard Michael’s camera click for a few minutes. I turned to find him sitting on a pile of rope, looking pale. I asked if he was okay. He shook his head no, asked Philbrook where the best spot was for him to get sick, and seconds later, was leaning over the side of the boat, losing our hastily eaten breakfast to the fish.
“I though Bill was a better cook than that,” Philbrook joked about the owner of the B&B, Bill Hoadley.
Afterward, Michael looked better, but only slightly.
Luckily for him -- but not for me -- whatever humiliation he felt was dimmed when half an hour later, I had my own panicked moment. The glass of juice and cup of coffee I had tossed down that morning had caught up with me. I scanned every water-slicked surface of the boat for a restroom and realized there was none. In fact, there was no privacy whatsoever. No tucked away corner. No nook in the wall.
I thought about waiting, considered the mental games I could play to make the time pass faster, but we had five hours left on the boat. I had no choice. I turned to Philbrook, who was busy pulling traps: I don’t suppose you have a restroom here, do you?
“Just take a bucket and a paper towel,” he said, casually, unsympathetic.
I was about to ask where I should take it when I realized the ridiculousness of that question. No matter where I stood, I was exposed to any passing boat. So all I could do was hope that Michael and the others would turn their heads forward as I walked toward the back, placed my bucket near a fish-slimey wall and let my pride fall with my jeans.
Yes, it would be an embarrassing day.
When we finally hit land, seven and a half hours after we had set off, Michael and I reeked of raw fish and our feet were soaked. Crab guts streaked my jacket. It had been a hard day for us, but we couldn't complain. It’d been harder, at least financially, for Philbrook and Macleod. They had caught only 351 lobsters, a number so small they wondered whether they had used bad bait.
Since they never know exactly how much money they'll earn until they come back to shore -- where the catch can be counted and the market value calculated -- Macleod wasn't sure what he'd see when Philbrook handed him a paycheck at the end of the day. He only knew that days of $700 now looked more like $400 and the day's catch had fallen short of even that.
"Let's see," he said, opening the envelope. "$197."
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