The Gamage Family

On a crisp March morning, Arnie Gamage Jr., 59, and his sons, Adam, 36, and Chad, 32, are finishing building traps in Arnie’s workshop near Seal Cove, South Bristol. Outside the red barn, a mountain of bright yellow wire traps was neatly stacked, a reminder of busy days to come.

Inside, Arnie relaxed near the warmth of the wood stove and recalled when his boys began lobstering. “Both of them started about as young as you could start, nine or ten years old. Back then we didn’t have restrictions, so I could go with them and could help them haul the traps.” Chad spent some time working on scallop and groundfishing boats in his twenties, then returned to lobstering and shrimping from South Bristol. Adam was accepted at Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland, took a look at the school “for about five minutes,” and then he too returned to lobstering.

Arnie began fishing at a young age as well, taking his first sternman job when he was ten years old and then running his own traps at eleven or twelve, following in the steps of his father who loved to lobster. Arnold Gamage Sr. hauled his traps on the same day in which he later passed away in his sleep.

All three Gamages gear up to trap shrimp in the winter, but this year the regulators shut down the fishery just after it opened February 1. “Our big season: seventeen days,” wryly noted Chad.

“If we have a good shrimp season, we have a good year,” Arnie explained. The extra income from shrimping is essential to most South Bristol fishermen to get them through the winter months. “If you start falling behind those winter months, you play catch up all year round,” Chad added.

According to Arnie, lobstering is a harder way to make a living now than in the past. “When I was bringing them up at home, everything seemed more predictable then from year to year — lobster prices, bait prices, fuel prices, the prices of boats. We didn’t make as much money but money went a lot further then it does now. We have to fish eleven months out of the year between lobstering and shrimping to make ends meet,” he said. “There’s no working July through December and taking six months off to work on gear cause we don’t catch enough lobsters here to do that.”

“The price of lobster has been so low these last few years,” Arnie continued. “At the height of our fishing these days we make enough to pay our weekly bills but we need to make two weeks pay at a time to get through the winter. The prices just don’t reflect that anymore.”

The Gamage men agreed that there are advantages to working together as a lobstering family. They all build traps in Arnie’s garage to get exactly what they want and share maintenance and boat repair tasks. When out on the water, the Gamages stay in contact and let each other know where the lobsters are. Chad and Adam help Arnie’s sternman load the bait each morning and they coordinate trips to Rockland and elsewhere to bring back supplies.  “It makes life easier being my age and having two younger sons that go fishing,” Arnie said. The three men even share the same orange and green paint to mark their buoys, each with its own distinct pattern.

Working as a family group lends stability to an uncertain business. There is little predictability to the costs associated with the business, noted Arnie, except that they rarely come down. The market price of lobster depends in part on national economic trends yet, up or down, the family is always there to support each other. “It’s good working with your boys in this business but sometimes I feel really guilty about getting them into it. On the good days I think life couldn’t get any better than this anywhere, but on the bad days I think ‘what have I done to my boys to get them into this mess’,” Arnie said.

Expenses have certainly gone up in recent years yet the price paid for lobsters hasn’t budged much at all. While lobster landings along the Maine coast have steadily climbed over the past twenty years (103.9 million pounds in 2010 up from 30 million in 1990) the average landed price ($3.30/lb.) is close to what it was thirty years ago. Arnie had recently come across a slip in his grandmother’s house from July, 1964, when a soft shell lobster brought 60 cents a pound and a hard shell 80 cents.

“When you lose 50 to 60 cents a pound off the boat price that’s the money that comes out of your pocket, the money you go out to eat with, or for you build on to your house with, or buy a new vehicle,” Arnie said. His two sons nodded in agreement. “That’s the money that keeps the coastal economy in Maine going. The businesses on the coast can tell whether the lobstermen are having a good or bad year. Lobster is a big deal for the State of Maine,” Arnie said emphatically. “The best thing for the State of Maine is for lobstermen to be making money.”

According to all three Gamage men, the South Bristol Fishermen’s Co-op has contributed greatly to the success of local lobstermen. Both Adam and Chad are members of the Co-op along with their father, who was a founding member in the 1970’s. The South Bristol Co-op is unusual because it is a realty cooperative as well as a business cooperative. Every ten years or so, the owners of the Co-op sell their realty shares to new members, in effect “retiring the mortgage.” “It’s a way to get new members invested in the Co-op,” Arnie said. “It also gives them a foothold on the South Bristol harbor.” The Co-op currently has 23 member fishermen from six different Lincoln County towns who fish out of South Bristol harbor.

“Being self-employed [as a lobsterman] definitely has its advantages,” Adam said as he began finishing up for the day. “No one telling you what to do.” When asked if each man would encourage his children to go lobstering, Chad said he probably would not have a choice because he wouldn’t be able to keep them away from it. Adam, who has a son and a daughter, agreed. “It’s hard not to get involved with lobstering being such a part of your life. I couldn’t imagine not doing it and I couldn’t imagine him not doing it, but the times are changing.”

Originally authored by: Jennifer Begin

First published in Landings, the newspaper of Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Reprinted with permission.