All claws on deck for lobster tours

A twist on ecotourism turns kids into sternmen, adults into foragers, a lobsterman into a floating mentor, and crustaceans into unwitting stars of the show.

The first lesson comes about 15 minutes out to sea, as the lobster boat drops to an idle beside a green-striped white and red buoy. This particular pattern marks the buoy as belonging to Capt. Tom Martin and, more generally, to everyone on board the Lucky Catch today — 17 people from as far away as Seattle.

All the children and a few adults rush to starboard to watch the winch haul a lobster trap up from the deep. "Stand back a little," says Captain Martin, a clean-cut man who laughs easily and often, and who seems to have taken on the role of teacher as readily as he did that of lobsterman 20 years ago.

With a splash of cold water, the trap comes aboard. Inside, scrabbling in the sudden bright sunlight, are a rock crab and the object of the excursion: a lobster, reddish-brown, beady-eyed, and dripping.

The lobster is small, not even close to the 3-¼ inch body length required by law for it to be kept. He's two or three years old – Martin knows it's a "he" because the swimmerets are hard and orange-tipped – and he's probably molted recently, which means his shell is still soft. Even so, the lobster snaps and flails menacingly. The more timid among the tourist crew back off.

Except for Martin, everyone on board has paid to be here – adults $22 and children $14. From Memorial Day to Columbus Day, Martin brings people out lobstering with him on four or five runs a day. It's a coastal Maine twist on ecotourism – one replicated at ports from Ogunquit to Bar Harbor – and one that gives passengers hands-on experience. Everyone here today came to Portland expressly with the Lucky Catch in mind.

Each of Martin's cruises – the lighthouse route, White Head Passage, and this one, to Seal Rocks – lasts about 90 minutes. That's barely enough time to check eight traps at four buoys, to unload the catch and sort it, to change the bait and replace the trap, and – most important – to impart something of The Ways of the Lobster and to point out seals and ferry boats along the way.

"Let's get that bait loaded," Martin says. Theo, Celia, and Max Shriver, who are on board with their parents and grandparents, take turns holding the net bag and stuffing it with herring.

"Okay, that's enough," says Theo – at 10, the eldest of the siblings. All three are gloved and bibbed in orange waterproof pants, which, given the overripe state of the fish, is probably a good thing.

At each of the four stops, Martin demonstrates and instructs, always patient. During the off-season, he lobsters on his own – the solitary work of tending 800 traps through autumn rain and winter ice. If the role of lobster spokesperson and guide is burdensome at times – when, for instance, a child drenches the inside of gloves that must be shared – Martin doesn't let on.

Instead, he holds the brass wheel and pilots the boat from buoy to buoy. He made the decision to shift from full-time lobstering nine years ago, he says, after the limit on the number of traps allowed was reduced from 1,200 to 800.

Other fishermen are largely silent on the practice of commercial lobster boats taking on passengers. "I'd just as soon hold out on that," said one who would not give his name. "Maybe it's not selling out, but I wouldn't want to do it."

For Martin, the shift was less about compromise than about adaptation. He's unfazed by criticism, implied or otherwise. "I love lobstering," he says, "and I love doing this."

•••

Martin may be captain of the Lucky Catch, but the real star is Homarus Americanus, the American lobster, a mysterious creature that tastes with its feet, hears with its legs, and has remained virtually unchanged for 100 million years.

Homarus myths abound: They are not scavengers, as was once thought, but primarily catch fresh food – fish, clams, mussels, crabs, worms, and sea urchins (generally not other lobsters). They prefer a cobble bottom and can range a mile or more at night in search of prey. Another myth is that lobsters mate for life. They are far less monogamous than that.

And here's one that may or may not be true, from Dave Woodman, grandfather of the three Shriver children: There's no natural limit to a lobster's life. Certainly they have enemies: Lobsters get eaten by seals and large fish, attacked by parasites, and consumed (sometimes over-consumed) by humans. How they otherwise die remains unclear. Some are documented to have lived 100 years.

In any case, it would seem that the lobster has some serious fans aboard today. Richard Garvais of Stafford, Conn., is here for the second time with his two stepchildren and a grandson. By the end of this trip, 8-year-old Matthew Garvais will have baited enough bags, banded enough claws, and pushed enough traps off the side of the Lucky Catch to have qualified for the position of sternman.

But staunchest by far among the lobster devotees are Kym Hauser and Pete Cleveland, who traveled to Portland by train from Massachusetts. Ms. Hauser and Mr. Cleveland love lobsters so much, it turns out, that they kept one at home in a tank as a pet, along with some crayfish. "We came up just to do this," says Hauser. They went out on the Lucky Catch yesterday and enjoyed it so much, they came back again today.

"You always learn something from him," Hauser says of Martin. "Yesterday we saw a female with eggs that we had to throw back. Oh, here. I took a picture of it." She pulls out her digital camera, locates the photo and zooms in. "See?"

The eggs – sometimes several thousand – exit the lobster's body through two holes and adhere to the underside of her tail. The female will carry them that way for up to a year, at which point the eggs will hatch. For about a month, the larvae will float near the surface, where most of them will perish. After that, a few fortunate survivors will settle to the bottom, to continue the lobster life.

•••

Back on shore, the next crew of tourists is beginning to gather. Some take cover in the scant shade of the ticket booth, while others stand in the sun. Dennie and Sharon Congrove, of Lake Harasu City, Ariz., are part of the latter group, waiting eagerly at the top of the boat ramp.

The Congroves read about Martin and the Lucky Catch in a magazine. They're looking forward to the hands-on experience, they say, and to learning a thing or two, but in truth they have an even more basic goal in mind: dinner.

They will, they hope, pull from one of Martin's traps the lobsters they will carry off the boat to a nearby restaurant that will cook them. The lobsters are cheaper this way, probably $5-6 a pound instead of $7 – effectively wholesale because there's no middleman.

"We're going to eat them right there," says Ms. Congrove, gesturing to a waterfront patio just off the pier.

Whether this qualifies as ecotourism is debatable, just as it's hard to say whether knowing Martin's facts will enhance their meal or detract from it. The Congroves will, at any rate, understand the precise origins of the food on their plates – and know exactly how it got there.

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