Not Much About Lobstering on Matinicus
A few weeks ago somebody asked me to write a few lines about my first days on Matinicus and to explain, “in 25 words or less,” about the lobstering. I assured my friend that I was not the best person to describe the fishery, that any of my neighbors would do better, that even a couple of back-issues of National Fisherman might be in order; she just smiled sweetly as if to say “quit your wobbling and write about lobstering.” Sure.
My grandfather was a lobsterman in South Thomaston when I was a kid in the 1960s and ‘70s. When I arrived on Matinicus in 1987, it was immediately obvious that this was Not Fred’s Lobster Fishery. So much was different from what I was used to. Some, because Fred’s was a fairly small-time operation, some because of basic work-related differences between the deep water and inshore lobstering (and this still isn’t the way-offshore fishing where guys from Massachusetts and Rhode Island stay out for days at a time). Some of the new methods were probably more about a few years having passed, rather than the location; for instance, wire traps were replacing wooden traps everywhere. I learned to build wooden traps in the early 1980’s, just as they were becoming obsolete. That’s the story of my life.
Anyway, less than a day from the time I had the draft of my little memoir ready, our island was back in the news for other reasons, related, somewhat, to the lobster business. I figured I’d better back off, wait and see; it would be too easy to have something I wrote about in 1987 misconstrued as a comment related to last week’s proceedings. People will be looking for hooks upon which to hang their comments. Rude and callous strangers, slobbering and salivating over our bad news, will continue to proclaim that we are all, to the last man, woman, and child on this island, deserving of the chain gang. I do not wish to encourage the likes of them.
At my recent slide show at the Camden Rockport Historical Society on Sunday, March 7 (an audience favorite: our four-year-old neighbor observing a monarch butterfly emerge from the chrysalis. Aargh, the outlaw pirate island!), local author Kendall Merriam gave me a copy of his book The Illustrated Dictionary of Lobstering. There were a couple of times last week when I felt like hauling it out of my back pocket and handing the little volume to certain articulate men in suits.
Admittedly, when I got to Matinicus I’d never heard of a “lobster car” either. The language of lobstering on Matinicus was a bit different than I’d learned on Fred’s old Novy boat between Spruce Head and Waterman’s Beach and German Joe’s Point and Tommy’s Island. I first heard the expression “lobster car” in Dick Moody’s store, August of 1987; Lori was talking to somebody else and mentioned that somebody was “off on the car.” I knew she wasn’t talking about an automobile. Fred, my grandfather, bought his bait and sold his lobsters at Atwood’s wharf in Spruce Head. He’d either sell each day or store up just a few wooden crates full of lobsters on a mooring which he could see from his kitchen window. I had no experience with lobster smacks, bait scows, lobster cars, or “bum boats,” or anything to do with buying stations and sub-buyers and the politics thereof.
If you keep your mouth shut and your ears open for a short while, it isn’t hard to catch on. What a person should not do is re-translate occupational or local wording into the mis-matched terminology of one’s own geography; wherever you go, accept the terminology of that place on its own. That is to say, the wharf here might also be the dock but it is not the pier or the jetty. A piling is not a pylon, and so on. My grandfather Fred told me, when I was a little kid, that the thing he called the “david” as in “block and david” got its name from David in the Bible and his shepherd’s crook; I later realized that was complete nonsense when I learned the word “davit.” On Matinicus, it’s just a davy. From the davy hangs the block which is a pulley. This is not rocket science. People with graduate degrees often seem to find it hard, however.
Words of wisdom: My neighbor (who does, by the way, have a graduate degree and still can pronounce things around here) made the observation a couple of years ago that, with regard to Matinicus Island, “Fishing is NOT a ‘subculture.’ Fishing is the dominant culture.” Let us all keep that in mind.
My daughter’s senior English paper described some bits of our island world; after the news this past week, classmates sent text messages and e-mails, to wit: “I thought you had made all that stuff up!”
The Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, at a meeting at the State House on Wednesday, March 3, refers obliquely to lobster territories as “business practice issues.”
I will stop here, not because I have told a story, but because I have not. This week is a time for “waiting and seeing,” not for sounding like we know very much. If you listen to the local news, you will understand. For those who read this from some distance away, I beg your indulgence. To send nothing this week would be as conspicuous, and some jerk would sneer and say I was afraid of those guys. No, sir. I’m just not the right person to answer all the questions.
So, my grandfather Fred’s boat was bright yellow, which was just not done in those days, when lobster boats were pretty universally white. I will tell you what I remember…
Eva Murray had a lobster license back when they were cheap and easier to get and before she lived on Matinicus; her buoy colors were red, orange and white.