The Life of a Maine Fisherman
Previously, in Island Wars… Donovan Graham has been conducting interviews, meeting people, and poking his nose around Grand Seal Island. He’s a blogger for the Eastport Sun, and he’s covering a military showdown between the U.S. and Canada. In his spare time, he has gone firewalking, taken part in all-night bohemian parties, met some strange characters, and tried—and injured—his hand at lobster fishing.Click here to read earlier entries, or read on to see Van's latest update.
The agonies of witnessing the slaughter of lobsters notwithstanding, my hands and arms are beginning to heal slowly. I don’t deserve a full recovery, however.
After my flopping-tuna impression on the deck of the Minnow, I regained both my composure and my balance quickly enough, I hope, that Archie’s story about it later will take less than three hours to tell. I can live with that. I just hope they don’t sing ballads about it for generations to come:
He wanted to become a man
That was his greatest wish.
But what the heck
He hit the deck
And wriggled like a fish.
With my luck, it’ll end up in the Quaker hymnal.
I stood on the Minnow’s deck, watching my left hand turn purple and puff up like a blowfish from its encounter with the winch cable. My right hand was battered and neurologically questionable from its encounter with the deck of the boat. The time was 5:45 a.m. My friends in The Village were just now wandering off to bed.
In an effort to prove that I’m educable, I spent the next several hours keeping my hands away from the cable. I also managed to grab the hard-shelled little hit men around the armpits, just like Archie showed me, and I sustained only a few dozen more teasing little “pinches.” Knowing that “pinch,” in lobster lingo, means something like “amputate,” I was prepared for their saucy caresses, and I managed to keep my reactions somewhat more fully to myself.
The hours droned on. Funny thing about summer in the Maritimes. The mornings are wicked cold, as the old-time Mainiacs say, but by noon or so the temperature scrambles upward toward 90 degrees, with humidity that could leech the color out of leather upholstery. I had prudently donned long underwear tops and bottoms, jeans, a T-shirt, a denim shirt, a sweatshirt, and a raincoat — as well as a knit hat and a scarf — so I was prepared for the chilly part. I had ditched the scarf early, on the theory that I was bound to get it tangled in the winch and become the first person ever to challenge lobsters to a death-match and actually lose. I shed the rest of the gear, one piece at a time, as the air grew warmer and my core temperature, soaring under the strain of exertion, caused me to blink a lot and hallucinate about dead people. By one o’clock, the sweat streams from my back, armpits, belly, and butt were linking up like tributaries east of the Continental Divide and forming a raging Big Muddy that coursed down my left thigh and pooled in my boot like a salty Sargasso Sea.
Throughout all of this, Archie maintained a steady one-man dialogue about every subject, topic, idea, theme, and concept that popped into this head. He was an oral Rorschach test, seizing upon random sentences of his own devising and bouncing off them in new and only marginally related directions. It was a verbal fugue, twisting meaning and threads of cognitive relationships into colorful, intertwining braids of verbosity. I paused from my buoy-hooking and my thug-grabbing to find out what, after several hours of nonstop language, Archie was still talking about.
“…my daddy decided to put out a hundred extra lobster traps. A hundred! That’s a big increase in the workload, but that’s just the kind of guy my father was. Having the same number of pots as the other guys wasn’t his idea of hard work. ‘That’s just doing what’s expected,’ he’d say to me. ‘The trick to getting ahead in this world is doing more than what’s expected.’ So we went over to this fellow’s place in Eastport, who makes and sells lobster pots, and daddy puts in an order for a hundred pots, a hundred buoys, and fifteen large spools of rope and cable. ‘How are you going to pay for that?” the man asked. ‘Simple,” my daddy told him. ‘I’ll be pulling in a lot of extra lobsters each day with these additional traps. I’ll have the money for you in no time, and I’ll make steady payments until it’s all paid off.’ Daddy looked the man straight in the eye and stuck out his hand. The man shook it, and the deal was on. That’s just the kind of guy my father was….”
I turned my attention back to the winch and the floats, pleased to discover that I hadn’t sprained any ligaments while my attention was directed elsewhere. I don’t think Archie cares whether he has an audience or not. I can imagine him out in the Minnow by himself, as he is nearly every morning of the season, yammering away about his daddy and his childhood and lobstering even though no one but the seagulls and the victims of his harvest are around to hear him. Actually, it seems kind of unfair — snatching lobsters from their cozy hideaways on the bottom of the sea, hauling them up through unfamiliar layers of ocean and dumping them into some dark space in the boat’s hold, and then making them listen to Archie yakking away for the next several hours. Sometimes the lobsters would fight each other in the hold, struggling to be the first to deliver a killer pinch. At first I thought that was a sign of the lobster’s generally nasty nature. Now I realize it’s an effort at mercy killing.
By late afternoon, we had checked all the pots, pulled all the clawedfish out of their traps and dumped them in the hold, and readied all the gear for another fun-filled day on the water. Archie turned the Minnow toward Eastport, where he said we’d be offered a fair per-pound price for the lot.
“You did a lot of hard work today,” he said. “I figure your cut should be around twenty percent.”
I stared at him for a moment, not understanding what he was saying. Then I realized that he was trying to give me money. I turned it down, of course — journalists don’t take money from their sources. Besides, while the Minots are reasonably well off, no one on Seal Island is exactly rich. I figured they could use all the money they could bring in.
I also realized, in that moment of pain and humiliating exhaustion, just how hard fishermen work for a living. It became clear to me that the problem isn’t that we have lazy fishermen using high-tech methods to overharvest the fragile ecosystem of the ocean. At the rate that Archie and I pulled in lobsters, the shellfish population was in no danger whatsoever and had probably increased by a few hundred roe (or grunion, or whatever baby lobsters are called) during the day. No single independent fisherman could do serious damage to a healthy breeding population of anything. The problem is that there are thousands of people extracting their livelihoods from the sea. The problem is overpopulation of one species — us — at the expense of most other species on the planet.
And I ended the day impressed at the level of work, dedication, and courage these fishermen bring to their efforts. I couldn’t do this for a week, let alone for season after season. I guess that’s what experiential journalism is all about. Getting out there, doing the hard work, and learning as you go. Nothing like a hard day at sea to strip away preconceptions about the life of a fisherman. This wasn’t exactly a jungle excursion searching for lost treasure in Cambodia, but it still counts as an adventure. And I didn’t have to go far from home to do it.
Archie cut into my thoughts. “You don’t want the money?”
I shook my head and thanked him for the experience and the education. That’s what I was after, and that’s what I got.
Archie just shrugged. “That reminds me of something my daddy once told me, when I was about your age,” he began….
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — FreedomFirst: What an idiot. You should have taken the money.
Comment — Edith5545: I’m so pleased to see people working hard for a living these days. That was common back when I was younger, but I don’t see much of it anymore.
Comment — Leonardo: You should have been given half the total income. There were two of you on the boat, and you both worked hard all day. Why should one class of people be paid more than any other for a full day of work?
Comment — PolSci206: Overfishing has been the cause of several international skirmishes in recent years. It is a problem the whole world will have to face together and resolve through international diplomacy.
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.