Lobster Tale: Working A Watery 'Backyard'

A crew lays traps on the ocean floor, luring their prey into underwater 'parlors'

LIGHT ruffles the cloudless horizon. The sun, an enormous orange bubble, pokes through the glassy surface of the ocean.Peter Mahoney watches as his son Chad rows to their lobster boat, the Windemere, moored in Hull harbor. The lap of oars and the cry of gulls are the only sounds. This is a sweet time for Mr. Mahoney. Memories flood in like the tide. He took his first lobsters from these waters at age 12. He swam in them the same time he learned to walk. If he turns east, he can see his mother's house, where he grew up; a sister's is next to it. If he turns west, another sister's house sits on the opposite shore of the harbor. Chad reaches the Windemere. The throat-clearing sound from its diesel engine ends the predawn reverie. Once it does, memory gives way to labor: Any thoughts that linger will be tinged with salt and sweat. The Puritans fished here as as early as 1622. Enough of them settled to make Hull, just a few miles south of Boston on Massachusetts Bay, a town in 1644. Their legacy of hard work remains, as a guest for the day quickly observes when father and son work their "backyard." "It costs $300 to pull my boat away from the pier," Mahoney tells his visitor. He ticks off expenses: fuel, calculated in dollars per hour of engine operation; bait (pogies or bunker fish) for his lobster traps at $8 a tub for nine tubs weighing 120 pounds each. Then there's the unpredictable, but certain, cost of damaged or lost traps. "A storm can destroy 20 percent of the traps I put out," Mahoney says. Like any lobsterman, he tells no one, but his son perhaps, how many trawl lines he has out. So it is an educated guess to calculate storm damage. But at $50 to $55 for a wire trap, 20 traps per trawl line, and a minimum of 30 trawls at sea at any given time, a bad storm can cost him $3,000 in one night. Chad nudges the Windemere alongside the dock. His father turns to greet the refrigerator truck backing up to the pier. It takes yesterday's catch. On July 3, wholesale lobster fetched $3.50 a pound. Some two weeks later, he is quoted $2. The calculation is automatic - if he catches less than 300 pounds, he should have kept the boat anchored in the harbor. Commercial lobstering is done year round. The best time is the summer and fall, when yields (the number of lobsters caught) are highest. Prices are highest in the winter, because the catch is smaller. There is a flurry of activity as Mahoney, his son, and two crew members who join them at the pier quickly unload 12 tubs of lobster, two days work (roughly 720 pounds) into the back of the truck. There will be the same flurry of action at the end of the day some 10 hours later.

ABOARD the Windemere, the commute to work is short. It takes less than 30 minutes. In fall and early winter, the Windemere may take up to 90 minutes to reach its traps as lobsters move to deeper waters. In transit, we pass Boston Light, the oldest continuously manned lighthouse in North America. (Guns from the fleeing British fleet leveled it during the Revolutionary War; it was later rebuilt.) Compared with trawlers and deep-sea commercial fishing boats, lobster boats are relatively safe. But hazards at sea are always present when half a ton of metal and lines is sinking to the bottom. A former industrial arts teacher, Mahoney hires teenagers in the summer. Safety is lesson No. 1, 2, and 3, no matter who is on the boat. One look of disapproval from his otherwise smiling eyes - failure to take note of a working winch, the snaking of lines as traps slide off the back down into the cold Atlantic - can wither. Carelessness is not tolerated. Neither is laziness. Young men with either propensity find themselves back on land looking for a job. "People look at what we do and think its just throwing some traps over the side of the boat and having lobsters crawl in," he says. (Lobsters can swim, but they always crawl into traps; they are bottom feeders.) "You try to get to your piece of the bottom before anyone else," he says. "When you find a spot with a substantial yield, you protect it," he says. Just where might that piece be? "Lobsters aren't just anywhere - they're in certain areas - so that's where you fish." That is about as specific as any lobsterman will be with anyone but a son or partner, certainly not a reporter with notebook in hand. Like a farmer needing to know how many bushels per acre a crop will yield, the catch per trap and the number of working traps are the basic units he uses to judge if he is going to make money. Keepers are at least 3 1/4 inches long from the eyeball to the end of the carapace (the first vertebrae). For Mahoney, things are going right (and they have been doing that most of the time for years) when the catch is upward of a pound per trap or 20 pounds per trawl. There are 15 to 16 fathoms (each fathom is six feet) of line between traps. Trawls that produce fewer than 10 keepers per haul are moved. When a productive area is found, a few extra trawls can be placed there. Because of concern about pollution, Mahoney drops his traps only outside Boston Harbor. "My bible is the Loran," says Mahoney. It is a navigational aid that allows him to mark, and then find, where he lays his traps. He turns to it and the sonar, which scans the bottom, all day. Ground configurations and time of year are the biggest factors in where he drops a trawl. At the business end of a lobster trap, two circular holes, next to each other, let lobsters "come into the kitchen." Bait is tied by a string to mesh netting between the holes. A little further into the trap, but still in the kitchen, more bait is hung from the wire cage. It leads to the "parlor." There are two compartments called parlors. Once in either, a lobster has no exit.

SMALL openings (1 15/16 inches) are cut in the wire sides of the trap in the parlor sections so that juvenile lobsters can crawl out. "We're actually training them to enter the trap," Peter says with humor in his eyes. After each trawl is hauled up, undersize lobsters are tossed back. Keepers are placed on a tray for banding and counting. If caught with undersize lobsters, Mahoney could have his boat confiscated.By mid-afternoon the sun is oppressive. There is no breeze. A heat wave is in its second week. Even the dog, Barney, as much a fixture on the boat as the winch, needs little excuse to jump over the side to cool off. Chad and the crew take breaks swimming in the water. At the end of day, more than 20 trawls have been hauled, diligently checked, re-baited, and unceremoniously dumped back in the water. The return to port is uneventful. The harbor is crowded with pleasure craft. Their presence is ephemeral. They appear like dandelions after Memorial Day. Come Labor Day, they will depart like migrating birds. The Windemere and its companion fishing boats will remain, steadfast, bobbing in the maritime fields of New England.

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