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TimeSpace: Half A Tank
TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Feeling the Pinch in Maine


View of Matinicus, Maine from the small airplane that carts not only passengers to and from the island, but also mail and groceries. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.


Every fisherman on Matinicus uses colored-coded buoys for easy identification; those that wash up on shore are sometimes used as tree decorations. It's understood that if a fisherman sees his buoy, he can take it. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.


Maude Ames, wife of a long-time lobsterman, uses the island breeze to dry her laundry. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.


Kenneth Ames is a retired lobsterman who worked the waters around the island for more than half a century. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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."


Nick Philbrook, son of Clayton Philbrook, cleans fish on his boat named "Destitute" while docked in the Matinicus Island harbor. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.”


Clayton Philbrook grew up on Matinicus watching his father fish these waters. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.”


Boat Captain Clayton Philbrook and stern man Craig McCleod scan the horizon for the next buoy. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.


Craig McCloud, who began assisting Clayton Philbrook four years ago, tosses overboard a lobster that was deemed too small to add to the catch. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.


A lobster-eye view of some freshly caught crustaceans in the boat's holding bin. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.


The lobster boats in general work the waters about three miles off shore. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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?


Clayton Philbrook closes up a freshly baited lobster trap just before tossing it overboard. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.


From the lobster boat, we took a dinghy to the dock, leaving the larger vessels to stay in the harbor for the night. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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."


There is a long tradition of lobstering on the island, evident from the lobster boat etched on the headstone of longtime fisherman Austin Ames. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 22, 2009; 9:29 AM ET
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: A Harvest Ripe with Tension
Next: Coming Home


it's going to be high unemployment in the USA until we get rid of President ACORN and the democrat socialist party. Their policies are not conducive to private sector job creation. 35 million on food stamps and 17% unemployment tell the tale.

Posted by: charlietuna666 | September 22, 2009 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Novelist Elisabath Ogilvie wrote about lobstering on Criehaven, an island near Matinicus. Her novel HIGH TIDE AT NOON discusses the impact of the Great Depression on lobstering and helps give a little insight into the lives of people today.

Posted by: gretchenlaskas | September 22, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

As a frequent Maine vacationer, I feel bad for the people who are dealing with the bad economy.

But I also think that the grocery stores with fish departments are missing out on a fabulous opportunity.

Lobster is less than the cost of a decent cut of steak nowadays. If you shop around, you can find live lobster at as low a price as $5.99/lb. H-Mart (they have one in Wheaton) never charges more than $7.99/lb

Help out a some lobster today!

Posted by: keithrjackson | September 22, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

I love how these papers like to print stories of people living a dying life style. We use to have some of the best buggy whip makers in the world. But unfortunately they don't exist anymore. No different than the guy who use to install TV antenna’s. Nothing lasts for ever so to think it will or should is foolish. To blame their down turn on the economy is ridiculous. Te wealthy are still wealthy and still live the life style they did last year or the year before. I'm sure the economy has had a SMALL effect but VERY SMALL.

Posted by: askgees | September 22, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

I am always amazed at the zeal (and the incredible amnesia) of the right to put everything on the STILL new prez... Last I looked, trade policy hasn't changed though the recession has eased some. Funny thing though, I haven't heard anyone talking about the good old days w/ George... Guess that's because his wars, mounting deficits (not what he inherited from Clinton...), depressed stock market and unemployment ARE STILL HERE. Boy, that's reassuring!!

Posted by: BwkDawg1 | September 22, 2009 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Wow, this is quite the comment:

"I love how these papers like to print stories of people living a dying life style. We use to have some of the best buggy whip makers in the world. But unfortunately they don't exist anymore. No different than the guy who use to install TV antenna’s. Nothing lasts for ever so to think it will or should is foolish."

Harvesting food is rather different than seeing technologies supplant one another. Maybe this guy can comment on what we eat when lobster, tuna, hoki, salmon, swordfish and a slew of other creatures are sufficiently depleted, or sufficiently unprofitable to catch, that they are no longer available? Do we eat buggy whips? Steam engines?


Posted by: xSamplex | September 22, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

People like CharlieTuna convince me we Americans will never solve our real problems, since they are so easily and coldly flipped into punchlines and radical politcal rhetoric.

PS... My roots are from Maine. Offense taken.

Posted by: NegativeMother | September 22, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Another great story from a great team!

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Heerman532 | September 22, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Hey charlietuna666- ( clever :( )
Obama has been President since January. The issues that we face came long before he even started campaigning for the job. Your comments are not cute, they do not engender debate, and prove that there is a distinct portion of the American populace who really don't care- because if you did you wouldn't be throwing around epithets that are devoid of value and have no specific ideas to offer in the balance.

Posted by: poppysue85 | September 22, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Please stop feeding the fear mongering by throwing around the socialist word. The president was elected by the people for the people. Never mind coorporate welfare either right 700 billion sound familiar. Sounds like you have absolved greedy mortage lenders, banks ,and even enron, to name a few, from any guilt in shaping our economy for the worst. I guess it's easier to blame just one person for everything. Even when he is'nt responsable for any of it. All of this happened before he was elected. This was a good story and your unrelated comments are distracting.

Posted by: amdesco1 | September 22, 2009 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Why are the commie pinkos jumping all over charlietuna666 because he points out the obvious TRUTH that our President is at fault for the world's ills? They just don't want to admit the OBVIOUS! FACT! that Obama is responsible for republican deficits, the Great Depression, the national debt, the failure of our Viet Nam policy, AIDS, the Bubonic Plague, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the fall of the Roman Empire - not to mention the death of George Washington. How unpatriotic of those socialist effete snobs not to condemn him for the collapse of the lobster industry.

Posted by: bowkie | September 22, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Great article, and as one of my father's best friends was a lobsterman in Maine, rings true.

However, for my lobsterman friend, the hard times started in 2008, when diesel prices soared and credit became impossible to find. For those keeping track, those duel business killers occurred before Obama became president. Even this article notes that the person who bought the boat and named it Destitute, did so last year, just when everything went to hell.

I lived in Maine for years and loved the fierce independence and pride of its natives. Thanks for a great article.

Posted by: joyrenee1956 | September 23, 2009 5:51 AM | Report abuse

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