In the morning there are seagulls. Dozens of them swarming around fresh herring carcasses, squawking and alighting on the the edge of the bait bin, saluting the sunrise by trying to steal a meal. I hate seagulls. I hate them because they are loud and canny, because they are needlessly violent toward one another, and because they shit all over the place–a lot. This hatred should not be interpreted to mean that I disrespect their hard-won place in the food chain. Far from it. They deserve praise for their scavenging. They are daring beasts. I once saw a seagull steal a muffin from a woman sitting outside of my old university’s library. There was absolutely nothing she could do about it once it was gone. The seagull’s chutzpah could not be denied.
They thin out a bit when you’ve actually gotten on the boat, the seagulls do. You’re now too close to their potential food source–and too impatient–to fuck with. So they patiently wait in the sea for the fishermen to blast bait parts over the open-ended stern and into the water, where they can once again duke it out for scraps, beat one another up for herring heads and other anonymous fish guts.
There are 30 trawls on this route. Ten traps per trawl. 300 traps in all. All of the traps must be examined for lobster, re-baited, and tossed back into the sea. Lobsters found in the traps must be sexed. If simply male, the lobster must be measured from the eye socket to the edge of the tail to determine whether it’s a keeper. Female lobsters are more complicated. Those that are either pregnant–with hundreds and thousands of eggs on their bellies–or notched must be thrown back. To notch a female lobster, one cuts out a small triangle at the edge of one of the fins on the back of its tail. This small mutilation grants the lobster infinite life. It cannot be fished. Lobstered. It is a breeder for life.
A lobsterman notches a female lobster with the understanding that allowing an edible population to successfully reproduce has the happy side effect of maintaining the viability of an industry that depends on that population not going extinct. As Tony, one of my lobsterman guides, said, “Yeah, it sometimes sucks, but I agree with it.” Of course, not every female lobster is notched because not every lobstering season is created equal. Some years are just better than others. Some years lobstermen do well, and they notch prolifically. Some years, they don’t and they don’t. Some years are half and half, and the lobsterman’s decision may be made on a whim–a decision, say, that “Since I can’t haul in this pregnant three pound beauty of a specimen, no one else can, either.” Snip, snip. Notched.
It’s an interesting dynamic, though, and something you’ll notice if, like me, you are on a lobster boat for the first time: the vast majority of the lobster caught is thrown almost immediately back into the ocean. Hundreds and hundreds of pounds of lobster are discarded–alive and well, to continue growing until age seven or so, when they’ll probably be big enough to keep. It’s a trade-off of a kind not often seen: forward-thinking and altruistic at the expense of immediate wealth and self-gratification. It is fishery management at its best, and as far as I can tell, management of the sort that bureaucracies ought to strive for. It is an understanding between generations that if a lobsterman is going to raise his son to be a lobsterman, there must be lobster to catch when his son becomes a man.
There must be lobster.