When Lobster Sales Slow to a Crawl

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SINCE Wesley Lash is (other Lashes excepted) our best hand with a wooden boat, it may seem curious that a steel craft is idle in her cradle amongst the other boats wintering in his yard. But Wesley does take on odd jobs, and will scrape and paint SEA SMOKE before she goes back in the water. Just when SEA SMOKE will go back in the water is much-moot, right now, so she will continue to look curious as she sits there.

You don't need an expensive expert with his credentials a-wave to find out what's going on. You can, you should know, open a can of fruit cocktail and find out the condition of the country. If there's an exuberance of Queen Anne cherries, it indicates a glut in upper New York state, but if pineapple is meager, things in Hawaii are in good shape. And if you lack a big nationwide poll to confirm the economy of the republic, go and look at SEA SMOKE as she sits in idleness in Wesley's boat yard. Right now, lobsters are fetching better than $6 a pound, close to seven.

SEA SMOKE is 36 feet long, the property of Coastal Fisheries Inc., and she's a work boat, the pound tender. On her mooring she still looks different amongst the Friendship fleet, which runs to wooden and fiberglass lobster-catching craft of a pattern pretty much special to Maine's Muscongus Bay.

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In the usual course of the lobster business, the fishermen bring in their daily catches and sell them to a buyer. Some buyers merely buy and ship - trucks regularly start from Friendship for far places, and as Friendship lands more Maine lobsters than any other harbor, some of the trucks go to far places indeed.

But Coastal Fisheries also has a pound over on Long Island - a tidal cove fenced off with a lobster-proof barrier where lobsters are stored when lobsters are plentiful and brought forth when lobsters are in better demand and the price is more kind. SEA SMOKE thus serves her purpose, and from time to time we see her chugging up the harbor, on her way to the pound, with long strings of 100-pound lobster crates in tow. Along about this time of year she would normally be busy bringing back pound lobsters to go to Washington, Philadelphia, Denver, and Younameit. But SEA SMOKE is on the beach and the lobster business is in a bind. The economy can thus be rated, as with Queen Anne cherries and pineapple.

I like to approach my retired lobsterman friend, Stan Simmons, to confirm all things, and when lobsters hit $6.50 a pound at the wharf, the biggest price in history, I said to Stan, "Are they crawlin'?" This is esoteric. The biologists and the purists will tell you lobsters swim - there is a cult that insists they swim backward. But when fishermen talk, the word is crawl.

At certain seasons, during migrations from deep to shoal water, lobsters are less likely to enter the traps, but when they begin to "crawl" everybody cheers up. So "are they crawlin'?" is 'long-shore lingo, and as every lobster fisherman is a born pessimist the answer is "Daow!" That's an emphasized negative. So with lobsters sky-high, I was eager to hear what Stan had to say. He said, "Crawlin'? I guess they're crawlin'! Trompin' right on down!"

I asked Henry Thompson, who handles the SEA SMOKE, when he planned to return the boat to the tide, and Henry said, "I dunno now. Next year, mebbe." Then he shook his head, and added, "Cheaper to have her ashore - if she's left in the water the insurance belts us over the head." Henry's pound is empty and has been all winter.

That, in turn, is tied to the way things trend. When money began to trot scared, the banks along the Maine coast decided to ease off on the lobster business. Impounding lobsters, even if done when they're cheap, runs into big money, and then the pound keeper must feed them until they are retrieved. Plus, of course, certain risks like marauding raccoons, or a storm that rips out the barrier. This past season pounds have had a rest. SEA SMOKE is having a rest. Diners-out are having cheaper cuts of tenderlo in and braised pheasant and such. Folks like you and me can't afford lobster. Things are askew. Here in Friendship we look at SEA SMOKE up on stilts and shudder.

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