Sea Bugs

on the water with the men and women who hunt for Homarus americanus

Words by Seth Putnam
Images by Jesse Lenz & Jeff Dworsky




“It’s a hell of a lot better than Mr. York’s church. Sorry, but it’s true!”

It’s 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday in Stonington, Maine, the lobster capital of the world.

Parishioners file into a tan-sided building at the end of Main Street, past the buoys, nets, and barnacle-encrusted cages out front. The sound of music floats out from within, but this is no ordinary place of worship. This is the Church of the Morning After, and its congregation is made up of the crusty old salts who have made their living pulling sea bugs from the waters of Penobscot Bay since they were knee-high to a lobstah.

They’re meeting, as they do most Sundays, at Steve Robbins Jr.’s fishing shop. He holds court here each Sabbath, and on this particular morning there are no fewer than seven guitars, a bass, a keyboard, a ukulele, an accordion, a harmonica, a banjo, a violin, and a tambourine—plus a five-gallon bucket that someone’s banging on. Other congregants filter in throughout the morning, unpacking their instruments and finding their rhythm as the jam session transitions from Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” to Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.”

Outside, a woman slows as she drives by. “Best church around!” she says to the fishermen smoking by the door. “It’s a hell of a lot better than Mr. York’s church. Sorry, but it’s true!”

The musicians jam throughout the morning. Around 10 a.m., the keyboardist plunks out the opening to Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart,” and Robbins follows along, wailing on his acoustic as he croons backup between drags from the thin cigar between his lips. He’s clad in a navy Carhartt shirt and trousers splattered with paint from his signature pink buoys. 

“That get your pacemaker racing, Stevie?” the keyboardist asks. “I think it’s come unhooked,” Robins replies drily.

Robbins is one of the elder statesmen of the harbor, an experienced lobsterman who was voted into the Fishermen’s Hall of Fame in 2014 by the IFWA (the Island Fishermen’s Wives Association, though in typical Mainer fashion, the husbands have a different acronym for the group that the reader is free to guess).

The performers keep the harmony rolling long after the verses are done, like waves hitting the shore after a grand swell, until one by one, each musician fades out and files out the door past a vintage poster that says “Build your future on a proud tradition.”

For the fishermen of Stonington, lobster fishing has become exactly that. But it wasn't always this way. A fusion of the Old English word loppe (spider) and the Latin locusta (you guessed it: locust), the creepy-crawly insects of the sea were once considered to be unfit for human consumption. And it probably didn’t help that the devil-creatures were long thought to be immortal if not for predators.

When the Europeans arrived in what is now Maine, they noted that the crustaceans washed ashore in piles 2 feet tall. The sea bugs were so ubiquitous and disgusting that early settlers used them as crop fertilizer. As recently as the 1800s, lobster was fed to prisoners and indentured servants so often that the latter began to stipulate in their contracts that they didn’t have to eat the atrocity more than twice a week. By the 1900s, lobster could be found canned in the supermarket and was nearly five times cheaper per pound than baked beans. It was a perfect candidate for cat food. Contrast that to the modern era, where lobster tails now go for upwards of $27.98 a pound on a given day in Chicago.

Opinions differ as to why lobster became so popular; it could have been the crustaceans’ eventual scarcity or the discovery that they taste better when they’re cooked alive and at lighter weights. And their reputation was undoubtedly bolstered by the advent of the railroad, which offered the ability to export them to landlocked states, where folks were unaware of the bugs’ baggage.

One thing is certain, however: Business is booming. In 2015 alone, the state of Maine brought in $457 million from 120 million pounds of lobster that then found its way all over the world, from Shanghai to Dubai.    


The fisherman emeritus

Seventy-nine years have passed since Andy Gove first got his license. In 1937, he was just 7 years old with a dinghy and two wooden traps, just like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him.

Sitting in the dining room of his foam-green house with his wife, Rose, he looks out the window onto Stonington Harbor. “Here I’ve been pounding away for 79 years, and someone comes along every day and tells me something I didn’t know,” he says in an accent as thick as clam chowder. He paid $7,000 for this view in 1955 and still goes out daily in his 36-foot lobster boat, Uncle’s U.F.O.

There was simply never anything else Andy wanted to do. He grew up on Eagle Island and attended the one-room schoolhouse there until it closed during World War II. His family sent him to Stonington to finish school, but he dropped out so he could go fishing. “I hated science and math; I just wanted to learn how to fish better,” he says as he adjusts the neon-pink hat Rose makes him wear so she can spot him in the grocery store.

Andy fished with Rose’s father as a boy, and the couple went on their first date on her 16th birthday. They married two years later on June 14, 1947, when they were only teenagers. These days Rose walks with a hunch, one shoulder higher than the other. A sign in their home happily proclaims, “Two old crows live here."

Over the past eight decades, Andy racked up plenty of harrowing stories. There was the time he got caught in thick fog with his radar showing a towering barge bearing down on him and no sign of slowing down. It turned out to be a Canadian tanker, and it missed him by a matter of feet. They squawked back and forth at each other on the radio. “He was nice enough about it, but if I’d been broken down…” Andy trails off at the thought of the wreckage that could have occurred.

He used to pilot a Cessna 150 to spot schools of fish and sometimes search for fishermen who were taken by the sea.  It’s said that his skill was so legendary that he could take note of how long they were missing, how many knots the wind was blowing and from what direction, and track them down. Each evening, Rose sits by the window with a pair of binoculars, watching for him to come home. That’s what Maine is: hardy folk buffeted by the wind and the waves.

Andy’s reputation is hard-won. When he was coming up, he memorized landmarks and the depth of the ocean in his usual fishing spots. These days, however, computers do all the work, and Stonington has seen its ranks swell to more than 100 boats and twice as many fishermen. “Computers have made it too easy,” says Andy, who got rid of his PC several years ago because it had too many buttons. “If they had to learn the way I learned, there wouldn’t benearly asmany fishermen these days.”

No one works harder or knows the bottom of the bay better. He’s got the trophies in his living room to prove it. Some stretch back decades, to the time when he was a fitter, faster young man, like the awards for trap hauling he proudly displays. “You’d start at the pier with your oil clothes on, run down to the boat, start the engine, and collect your traps,” he says with a grin. “Once, they tied my shoes together without me knowing, and I fell down, did a somersault, was back on my feet, and still placed.”

“That’s what Maine is: hardy folk buffeted by the wind and the waves.”

These days he hauls a “reasonable” 250 traps a day, compared with the 400 he used to bring in when he was younger. “If I sit around doing nothing, I stiffen up something terrible,” he says, which is why he continues to put in 10- and 12-hour days. “I don’t like loafers.”

If Andy’s body has slowed, his boat has done the opposite. In 2013, Uncle’s U.F.O. took home the prize for “fastest boat afloat” in Stonington’s annual Lobster Boat Races.

Andy faces age with no fear. “There’s no turning back,” he says. “We had a guy drop dead in his boat out here, and that’s the way I’d like to go. When I draw my last breath, I want to get a mouthful.”  


Shattering the glass boat

Genevieve and her sternman Felishia Taylor are no strangers to the obstacles that female fishermen face, whether it’s a snide remark, the occasional cut trap, or even oil clothes that don’t fit quite right because they were made for men. Out of the 5,000-odd fishermen in Maine as of 2015, only 205 were female—just more than 4 percent. “We’d like to see more young fishermen, because it’s our future, and you have to keep an eye on what’s coming down the line,” Genevieve says. “If you don’t show up and give your input, you only have yourself to blame.”

The barrier to entry does remain high: Apprenticeship takes 24 months, 1,000 hours, and 200 fishing days plus a safety course through the U.S. Coast Guard. Then, because the state has clamped down on the number of commercial licenses it issues, prospective fishermen have to wait—sometimes years—for someone to retire. At the end of the morning, it’s all about the size of the haul—and making it back in one piece. Genevieve keeps a knife clipped to the left suspender of her Grundéns in case she gets snarled in a trap rope and dragged to the bottom of the ocean. “It happens when people try to go fast,” she says. “I like to go slow and come back alive.”

For a long time on the midcoast, the choice of careers was a simple bifurcation. If you had a Y chromosome, you became a fisherman; otherwise, you became a fisherman’s wife. But these days, fishing is an increasingly common opportunity for women, who are no longer relegated to keeping house.

“Some say ‘fisherwoman,’ trying to be PC, but this just isn’t a PC industry and it sounds weird,” says Genevieve Kurilec McDonald as she steers her boat, Hello Darlin’ II, toward a cluster of her maroon and orange buoys. Having fished for the past 12 years, she was the first woman to become the Maine Lobster Advisory’s representative for the Downeast region. She’s also an advocate for female fishermen through her Facebook page, Chix Who Fish, which has allowed women to communicate up and down the coast, given that there are only a handful working in individual harbors.

 “At some point, men realized that fishing with their wife or girlfriend keeps the money in the house,” she says. “And now, fathers are no longer making the assumption that it’s the son who’s going to take over the family business.”


The up-and-comers

Sea Bugs Penobscot Maine-2.jpg

A little more than 10.5 miles west of Stonington, on North Haven Island, Avery Waterman and Aidan Emerson are just beginning to lay the building blocks of their own proud tradition. At 19, they’re getting a slightly later start to their morning than the salts in Stonington. They meet at the dock at 6:45 a.m. and are off by 7, with Avery in the captain’s role.

The pair played basketball together when they were in 17-person high school (they were the only two boys in their graduating class of four). Now they’re pursuing higher education—Avery at Southern Maine Community College, and Aidan at Central Maine—but each weekend they return home to their small island of 384 people to lay the groundwork for what in all likelihood will be their career once their degrees are finished.

On this particular Saturday morning, their first stop is to pick up bait: dead herring that they’ll stuff into netted bags to lure the lobster into their traps. Aidan messed up and left his skins (light waterproof pants that keep the bunk off his basketball shorts) on a bucket of bait, and now they have maggots in them that he’ll have to scrub out. The hard-rock band Shinedown crackles over the boat speakers: “It’s a cold, cruel, harsh reality.”

As they motor out to their first group of traps, the captain scowls. “Avery’s pissed because a freshman is setting on him, dropping his traps on top of Avery’s,” Aidan explains.

Most of their traps are about 20 to 30 feet down, but occasionally Avery moves into shallower territory with ledges and sets the traps between them. It’s gotten him in trouble a time or two, which is one reason the boat is called Ledgehammer. “I’ve bumped a few ledges so I guess I’ve christened the name,” Avery says sheepishly.

Aidan takes a pull off a vape pen while Avery uses a pole to hook one of his buoys, which is painted yellow with a red stripe. Then he feeds the rope through a hydraulic winch that hauls the trap up at high speed. Three Days Grace comes on the stereo, and the two settle into a rhythm. With a heave, Avery sets the cage on the gunwale and begins tossing bugs into a black container full of rubber bands that will soon be wrapped around their claws. Using a metal lobster gauge that hangs from a rope at his waist, he determines which ones they can legally keep. The lower limit is 3.25 inches from the eyes to the beginning of the tail, with 4 inches being “select” and commanding a higher price. “Next time this one will be good,” Avery says as he measures an undersized lobster and tosses it back, tail flapping, into the sea.

Meanwhile, Aidan tosses the empty bait bags into a bucket behind his back like a point guard executing a no-look pass. There’s a crispness to their movements as they whip open the cages, skewer their needles into the bait bags, reload the traps, and shove them off the stern of the boat.

 Not matter how fast they go, however, they’re still aware that they’ve got some progress to make. Earlier in the summer they worked with Andy Gove’s brother and struggled to keep up. “He hauled 300 traps by noon and kicked our asses,” Avery says. “He was ancient!”

The young men’s catch averages about 1.25 pounds a bug, and they expect they’ll haul in about 500 this morning. Last year, lobster broke $4 a pound, the best year since 2007. Quick math puts the reward for their take at a couple grand—not bad for a Saturday morning.


Securing the proud tradition

A few days after “church,” Steve Robbins Jr. sits with his niece Natalie in his truck overlooking Stonington harbor at 2:30 a.m., smoking his customary cigar. He’s leafing through the black book where he keeps notes on his favorite fishing spots and making a plan for the day while the conditions are best.

Despite how good the fishing is these days, life in Stonington is not without its dangers. Robbins can recount numerous tragedies and close calls, though none closerthan when a boat carrying Natalie’s mother, Stacie, was broken in half during a race in the Fox Island Thorofare. She was underwater for several minutes, snarled in the boat’s fuel line after another vessel’s propeller took part of her right ear. It took four separate dives to find her and bring her to the surface. “She was in critical care for 20-something days,” Robbins remembers. “A fellow named Foy Brown—I didn’t know him—put a jar in his boatyard for her. He brought in $1,700.”

Stacie made a full recovery. “People take care of each other,” says Steve Robbins III (or “Boris,” to differentiate from his father). “We live and work in an area where you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, your worst enemy could be the first one on scene when you really need him to be. When someone gets injured, people are always there—no matter what.”

It’s almost 4 a.m., time for the Robbinses to hit the water. The trio makes its way aboard the skiff that will take them to their boat, Autumn Dawn Faith. And with that, they motor off into the darkness, ready to attack another day of hauling traps.