VINALHAVEN ISLAND, MAINE — The moose may be Maine's official mascot, but it is the lobster that evokes the state's seafaring traditions - and entices gastronomes the world over.
The popular crustacean has become even more dominant in the past 15 years, as the number of lobster catches has tripled in Maine's coastal waters. Since then, the notion of an ancient trade of hard-bitten men has given way to a thriving industry that's brought windfalls to the lobster crew.
"Fifteen or 20 years ago, you'd tell people on the mainland you were a fisherman and they'd think, 'Poor you,' " Jason Day says over breakfast with his uncle Amby Alley. It's 4:45 in the morning and moonlight shimmers on the waters off Vinalhaven Island, which has seen one of the biggest surges in lobster catches in recent years.
"They don't say that now," Mr. Alley chimes in, sipping his coffee. "But that might not be the same in five years."
Both lobstermen, though hopeful, are keenly aware that the tide could turn. And if the past season is any indication, it's already turning. Lobster catches have begun to slip since peaking at over 60 million pounds in 2002. For many of the young lobstermen here, bounty is all they've ever known. Now, after a long boom, this cherished way of life is facing new challenges.
Last year, Maine's lobstermen reported a 14 percent decline in catches. This year, at least in Vinalhaven, the initial outlook is even worse. This comes amid high gas prices and rising property taxes, and as a boom in second homes sends gentrification creeping along the coast.
"People move into Maine from out of state who don't understand the value of a working waterfront," says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, a commercial-fishing industry group. Many newcomers "want more mooring for sailing, but not [the smell of] bait and engines running at 4 a.m. But this is part of our identity."
No one, Ms. McCarron says, expected the lobster boom to last. But some worry that many fishermen, especially those in communities that built themselves around the robust lobster industry of the 1990s, will flounder when spectacular lobster catches are no longer the norm. "The impact will be very, very tough on the coast of Maine," she says.
On Vinalhaven Island, a post-card-perfect place with a year-round population of 1,200, residents leave their cars unlocked and their keys in the ignition. Islanders still seem to know just about everyone, even as a humble fishing village has transformed into a lobster mecca, and the boats in the harbor have gotten bigger, their systems more high-tech.
"It's been really good fishing," says Norah Warren, manager of the Vinalhaven Fishermen's Co-operative. But the season has started late for the past two years. This fall, catches are off by at least 20 percent, though Ms. Warren notes that the numbers could change as the year goes on.
The pattern has moved up the coast of Maine, which had been largely unaffected by drop-offs further south in the past five years - a decline blamed on everything from pollution to overfishing.
Warren does not track the number of lobstermen, but the crustacean chase has tempted just about everyone here. "It makes it easy for people who aren't really fishermen inside," she says. "A lot of guys haven't ever seen any other kind of fishing."
That's what worries some scientists. "One of the big concerns is that the industry has overcapitalized," says Richard Wahle, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor.
Between those worries and a creeping awareness of a downturn, a few lobstermen, at least, are turning inward. Brennan Dyer, a Vinalhaven native, wants his son to learn about the trade his family has plied for generations, but he also wants his future to be more than bait and buoys.
"I'm trying to tell him not to be a lobsterman," says Mr. Dyer, stacking traps after hauling 145 pounds of lobster with his wife, Stormy Gale. Dyer is trading in his new equipment for used gear and plans to do carpentry work this winter to make ends meet. "Last year [the lobsters] were really late, this year they are really, really late. There aren't a lot of people making money."
For now, though, worriers are in the minority. Maine's coastal waters have long been the setting of battles between government, science, and fishermen, and the media has hopped on the "gloom and doom" that pervades the lobster industry, says Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Yet the industry, according to him, is "actually quite stable."
Lobstermen must throw back crustaceans if they're too big, too small, or carrying eggs. Such preservation tactics have shielded today's lobster industry from the historic ups and downs of America's fisheries, says Dr. Bayer.
Though Mr. Day says some fishermen have overextended themselves and lost their boats, he, for one, remains confident. Even if the numbers drop, he says, skilled lobster-catchers know the currents, the crags, and the boulders that lead to good catches: "Good fishermen will still be good when you can't just throw over [a trap]."
But the challenges here are real, and they go beyond the search for lobsters on the ocean floor. As Alley suits up in orange rubber pants and his engine hums, he says his $285,000 boat guzzles 50 gallons of gas a day. Property values have skyrocketed and prices are likely to keep climbing, as out-of-staters build homes along the shores of granite rock and pine trees.
Across the water in Rockland, Philip Bennett is getting his hair cut at a local barber shop. A lifelong lobsterman, he says illness caused him to lose his boat, gear, and home in Vinalhaven. He can't afford to return so he's living in a trailer on the mainland.
"A native can't buy land out there now," says barber Seth Knowlton. "It's too expensive."
This has changed to feel of the place, say some. "You knew everyone" years ago, Mr. Bennett recalls. "Now on the ferry it's just strangers. They are making [the area] into New York."
But despite all this, the stubborn and the hopeful insist that the region's core identity will survive. Warren, at work in her office above the Vinalhaven Fishermen's Co-operative, with a view of lobster boats docked outside, says the regional identity is not at stake. Not even close.
Come good seasons or bad, strangers or mansions, "It's lobsters, lobsters, lobsters," she says. The air still reeks of dead fish; traps are stacked on front lawns. She worries that fishermen will take more risks - staying out later in the season or rushing to sea before repairs can be made to their boats. But what's more likely is that they'll choose smaller boats or work with simpler gear, she says.
Downgrading wouldn't mean the end of what many fishermen love most, anyway, says Richard Hildings, a lifelong lobsterman who's made a small fortune in the trade. It's the freedom that he thrives on - smelling the sea and watching the sun rise over the water. "Haven't you ever noticed?" he asks, driving his boat to the mainland after a day's work, "the best people in the world live by the sea."