Lobstering: Then and Now

June 4, 2015 | By: The Culinary Institute of America

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Imagine living at a time when lobsters were so abundant that farmers crushed them for fertilizer. That was America in colonial times, when lobster was so plentiful and little valued that prison wardens fed it to inmates and fishermen considered it a by-catch. Lobsters four feet long and weighing 45 pounds were not uncommon in those days. Some say that coastal dwellers in Maine could fetch their lobster dinner from tidal pools with bare hands.

An organized commercial lobster fishery didn’t develop in Maine until the 1840s. By then, lobsters were becoming scarcer and thus more valuable. The invention of a fishing vessel known as a well smack, which had a tank that circulated sea water, enabled lobstermen to ship live lobsters over longer distances. At about the same time, American industrialists perfected the technique of preserving food in tin cans. Lobster canneries multiplied in Maine, and by 1880, canned Maine lobster surpassed the live product in volume. Unlike the live catch, canned lobster could make it all the way to California.

By the turn of the century, the canneries began to decline as railroads expanded their reach, making it possible to ship live lobsters under moist seaweed and ice. Once air shipping came along in the 1950s, live lobsters could cross the country overnight. Today, an estimated 90 percent of Maine lobsters leave Maine for parts near and far.

Modern lobster fishermen operate much like their predecessors did a century ago, although the boats have gotten more sophisticated. A well-equipped 40-foot lobster boat, complete with hundreds of traps, radar, sonar, communications systems and other electronics, can cost more than $200,000. The electronics can identify the depth and topography of the ocean floor, helping the lobstermen decide where to place traps. These boats are a great source of pride, and people maintain them zealously.

Lobstering is often a family affair in Maine, with techniques and territories passed from one generation to the next. While there are regulations that determine where harvesters can set traps, there are also unofficial territories known only by local harvesters and fishing families.

Originally published in CIAProChefs.com