Sam Hyler

It’s amazing what a bit of bad weather can do to you when you are 13 years old. For Sam Hyler, a 27-year-old Islesford lobsterman, a November vacation spent with his uncle lobstering off the island was the turning point in his young life. “It was lousy weather, blowing hard,” Hyler recalled. “But I loved every bit of it. I knew instantly that when I turned 18 I would do everything in my power to get on a boat!”

Sam did not grow up in a lobstering family. He lived in Warren; his father was a construction worker and his mother worked as a school teacher. But his uncle Steve, who had moved to Islesford in 1989, was a lobsterman. After his first experience that blustery November aboard Steve’s boat, Sam managed to find a way to work with his uncle or with other lobstermen in Knox County whenever he could.

“My parents sort of discouraged me,” Sam admitted. “They knew it would be a difficult road, particularly to get a license.” After graduating from Medomak Valley High School in 2003, Sam was able to move out to Islesford. His uncle had found him a job on a lobster boat and a place to live.

“I worked as sternman for Ted Spurling for a year and got my apprentice time,” Sam explained. “I worked on another boat for a year and then went with Steve Philbrook for seven years.” Sam settled into the Islesford world, learning about the community and making friends with other residents. But his dream to be a licensed lobsterman had to wait. When he first got on the waiting list for a license in Zone B, the entry-to-exit ratio was three licenses retired before one new license could be issued. Then the Zone B council changed that ratio to tags retired rather than licenses. The 3:1 tag ratio quickly changed to a 5:1 ratio and Sam saw his chances of quickly gaining a license dwindle.

“I finally got my license last year. I was eight years on the list after I finished my apprenticeship with Ted,” Sam said. When asked if he held a big party upon getting that long-anticipated license, he was quiet for a moment. “No,” he replied. “No celebration. That eight year wait was so disappointing. It was such a drag. My attitude was ‘it’s about time already.’”

Sam was prepared, though, when that license was finally his. He had saved his money while working as sternman and purchased a 35-foot Young Brothers boat, Fine Lines, built in 1989. His 300 traps were ready to go. “I had what I needed to start. It took some planning and being frugal to make it happen,” he admitted.

Sam’s 2012 lobstering season was “better than anything I could have expected.” He had set himself a goal early in the year, to haul a certain number of pounds based on an anticipated price. He needed to make a definite amount of money to pay his sternman, set aside funds to buy one hundred additional traps for next year, and “to have a life,” as he put it. “I hit that goal by early October. Every day after that was an added bonus,” Sam said quietly.

Most Isleford lobstermen are members of the Cranberry Islands Fishermen’s Coop. Sam has high praise for the cooperative. “I am one hundred percent for the coop. We are all invested in it. It is a business entity that is separate from our own lobstering businesses but whatever happens there affects us,” he explained. “Buying [bait and fuel] together in volume makes all our operating costs lower. It’s not some private owner who capitalizes on the lobsterman’s hard work.”

Planning ahead seems to be second nature to Sam. Although he said he never took any business classes in high school, “I’ve always been a numbers guy. I liked math.” When he started lobstering on his own, all his gear was fully paid for. He receives monthly financial accounts from the coop on his bait and fuel costs. He purchased a federal lobster license this spring. He purchased a small piece of property on the island last fall on which he plans to build a house. And he is engaged to be married this summer.

“One of the number one things about staying alive in this business is knowing where you are at all the time. You have to be informed and aware of what’s going on in the marketplace so you can plan,” Sam said. His own plan is to build up to his 800 trap limit, then reassess the condition of his boat and gear. Perhaps then it will be time for a larger boat. “There’s no reason I can’t do this for the rest of my life and make a good go of it,” he said. “There will always be ups and down in the price. But this can be a very, very good business.”

Originally authored by: Melissa Waterman

First published in Landings | January, 2013