By Ryan Post
In the news lately, people have been getting the impression that all lobstermen are a bunch of pirates running around with Jolly Roger flags swinging swords and shooting guns. . . and though some do fit that category, it’s not the case for most of us. Trap wars have been going on for generations, but some major things have happened this summer with a shooting, boats being sunk—lots of traps being cut all up and down the coast, including mine. In this industry, you walk a fine line—if you put your tail between your legs when someone cuts your traps—you’re done. But if you go off and be a pirate and cut someone else’s traps—you’re also done. All that has been going on up and down the coast is that we’re not getting enough money for our product. Tensions are high and people are really struggling right now. At it stands, even I don’t know how I’m going to make it through the winter. What's happening is lobstermen are not very happy with their economic situation and some think the grass is greener on the other side—or the fishing is better over in someone else’s territory as the case may be—and they don’t always obey the invisible territory lines. When people are really struggling, losing their boats, behind on their mortgage payments, that’s when you see bad behavior. I don’t condone the piracy and I don’t cut traps. Our family has never gone down that road. I don’t do it because I don’t want people cutting mine (even though they still do). If you get caught whacking those traps off, you could lose your license for two or three years. And people who retaliate are usually the ones who get caught. Still, I get why people on the outside are fascinated by this—it’s not like the politics they deal with in their office, but it’s not a Hollywood movie, it’s real to us. And when lobstermen are getting a fair boat price, that’s when you will see things settle down and find peacetime on the water.
My friend K. Stephens just released her first novel, The Ghost Trap, the story of Jamie Eugley, a young lobsterman struggling with the grinding responsibilities of a head-injured fiancée and mounting trap wars in the midcoast. The Ghost Trap seems to be art imitating life with the timing of trap wars this summer. What’s honest about some of these scenes is that you may think you know who cut traps (which almost always starts the wars), but you don’t really know for sure. And isn’t that the truth about how trap wars sometimes start…and end? I loved this book when I read it. It really hit home and relates to a lot of how I grew up on an island. Jamie is born and raised around a lobstering community in a small town in Maine and has loyalty and dedication to the industry, with a lot of drama around trap wars as well as a romance that is doomed. When I read it, it didn’t almost seem like fiction, but like I was reading pages from my life and how I grew up.
This character doesn’t lie down and let people run over him and his family, but at the same time, he’s hard working, well spoken and not the one to start conflict –and that’s what I relate to. People have the misconception lobstermen aren’t educated or intelligent, but it’s just the opposite. You have to have intelligence, navigational skills, be able to operate a boat, have common sense and an unbelievable work ethic to survive in this business. When you’re on a boat, anything can happen at any time. There are no tow trucks that come out and jump-start you. You need to adapt, overcome, find solutions to fix the problem and that comes down to time on the water, a lot of experience and again, common sense. Put me in most situations on the water or off, I’d rather have a lobster fisherman with me than someone who has a mega IQ but who has no common sense and couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag.
With The Ghost Trap and my educational DVD, Maine Buggin, K. and I will be going around to bookstores and events all over Maine this fall. We’re going to take an ordinary book signing and turn it up a notch by bringing some real excitement to the lobstering industry. Splicing excerpts of her novel that relate to chapters of my DVD, we plan to bring energy, passion and the educational perspective to how lobster traps work, how invisible territory lines are drawn, and why trap wars usually happen outside of the news. I don’t think anyone’s ever done this before where a novel and an educational DVD dovetail so well. (Join this Facebook Fan Page to learn more.)
I wrote this column because all people are hearing in the news about lobstermen are the negatives and they need to be reminded of the positives, such as the fact that we are the original environmentalists, conservationists and stewards of our sustainable industry because of the methods we’ve used over generations of our fishery. There is a lot of good in what the majority of us do. So, look for K. and me this fall—ask us any questions. Our first official appearance will be during Windjammer Weekend, Saturday September 5 at Sherman’s Bookstore in Camden from 1-3 pm. If it’s a nice day, you’ll see us out on the sidewalk. Come on by.
Columns and news about the subculture of Maine lobstering.