It's Not Just My Job, It's My Life
By Ryan Post
About four years ago, I was in the British Virgin Islands sailing around on this catamaran and when I went ashore, I found this little tiki bar on the beach—the only bar on the whole island. I sat down, ordered a bushwhacker, which is a combination of four, five or six, alcohols. I didn’t really know what’s in it. It was bushwhacker—it speaks for itself. Next thing I know, this guy comes up to me, very friendly, probably in his mid-50s and he starts talking to me. Now, wherever you travel, there are two questions people will always ask you. The first one is “Where are you from?” So this guy asks me where I’m from and I tell him and he says, “Oh Maine, my wife and I love Maine.” The very next thing people always ask is “What do you do?” So I told him I’m a Maine lobsterman and he instantly sat back, looked at me a little differently, and then signaled to the bartender to buy me another drink. Like I needed another bushwhacker at that point, but whatever. So after this exact same thing happened a few times with people asking me what I do and proceeding to ask me 100 questions and I got to thinking: why not put cameras on my boat and document what my sternman Jon Hill and I do for a whole year --then put it on a DVD?
At around the same time, I happened to be an extra in two scenes in the Oscar-nominated movie, In The Bedroom (I was officially: “guy in a sardine factory” and “guy in bar”). I was also in the film Empire Falls, though they redid the shot. Again, “guy in bar.” I know you’re thinking, what a stretch. So, having been part of this really interesting experience, I was starting to think, “I’ve got to do my own thing—take people’s questions about the lobster industry and put it on film.” Why not? I love explaining to people where I come from, my family and my heritage, where I grew up and what a perfect medium to convey these stories on film. Nothing had ever really never been done like that before—not like a Year of the Life. If you’ve ever seen that program about the Alaskan king crab industry on the Discovery Channel and how hard those guys work--just that footage alone justifies the price people pay for that product. My hope was to do the same with Maine Buggin’ so people could see past the myths and fantasy of lobstering and see how it really works.
I decided to focus on the educational side of lobstering to make it just as accessible to a six-year-old as to a 96-year-old. Right now, I’m already going into the school systems, bringing live lobsters into classrooms and explaining to the kids what the industry is all about. Especially around here, I think the kids really need to know how the industry works. Rockland, Maine is the lobster capital of the world. Period. There are more lobsters caught in Penobscot Bay and the surrounding islands than all of Maine—and the whole U.S. put together. But as lobster fishermen, we’re a dying breed right now, in some very touchy times. There’s a lot of prediction about us all being part-timers in the next few years. And let me tell you, for an industry that has been around for hundreds of years and which accounts for 80% of the U.S. catch, this is beyond a crisis—we’re in a free fall. It’s like Detroit’s automakers—if they didn’t get a bailout, Michigan and the whole U.S. economy was predicted to collapse. Well, it’s the same with us, only we don’t get a bailout. If the lobster industry crashes, then Maine’s economy is right directly behind it. I’m talking the restaurants, the tourist industry, the bait dealers, the trap builders, the marine stores, the sales of trucks and boats. I mentioned my family’s island in the last blog. This is where it gets hugely personal for me. My family’s island is now at stake. It is a humongous amount of work and responsibility to maintain a private island when you have 8 or 10 houses on the island and all the docks. Without lobstering we won’t have that island—it is run and maintained by the lobster industry. Even if I had to file for bankruptcy, but that wouldn’t even hurt the most. It would be letting down my great, great, grandfather, and everyone down the line, all the people who kept this island in the family through hard times. You’d never know how much of a failure it would be for my family if we had to let go of that island. It would be catastrophic. It would truly be the downfall of everything we stand for. My ancient relatives would turn in their graves-it goes that deep.
So. If you get a kid in junior high to believe how high the stakes are for us right now, perhaps that kid will go on to be lobbying for us in the future. We need lobbyists, because we are on the bottom of the totem pole. Fishermen and lobstermen just want to get up in the morning and put in an extremely hard working day (whether it’s 12 or 18 hours) and they want to come back at the end of the day, sell their product, fuel and bait their boat up and they want to go home. We need people not involved in the industry, but who understand what it is to lobby for it.
As you can see, lobstering is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. The difference between having a job is you can put into a 13-hour day and you’re guaranteed to make money. You put in a 13-hour-day lobstering say in the spring and you can go $300 in the hole. And then you get up the next morning at 3:00 in the morning and do it again. Whether you make money or not you have to go fishing. It’s a business that can be great one year and you’re losing your house the next. It’s a sacrifice that not everybody can make.
So stay tuned for The Maine Buggin' DVD next month. It’s set up in 8 or 9 chapters to show what all the ins and outs of our daily life on and off my boat, the 40-foot Instigator. I’m going to continue writing a blog for each chapter so you can get to know me, my sternman, and the people of Maine. The good times and bad and all the times all between. I promise you I will lead you into a world you’ve never seen.
And if you ever see me around and want to ask me a ton of questions—go ahead. The bartender knows to make mine a bushwhacker.
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.