North by East
A cleanup pulls three thousand ghost lobster traps, baby boomers recall Portland's wild days, and more.
Cartoon by Jamie Smith
A cleanup project retrieves three thousand derelict lobster traps from the ocean floor.
Cut from their buoys by boats, storms, and even feuding lobstermen, hundreds of thousands of wire lobster traps are believed to be drifting on Maine’s cold seabed, all the while continuing to catch lobsters, crabs, and finfish, a fate that has earned them the name “ghost traps.” Now, for the first time, we will get a glimpse into how all that lost gear affects the environment, thanks to a cleanup effort that removed three thousand derelict traps from the ocean floor.
“The whole effort was a real discovery on a lot of levels,” reports Laura Ludwig, who directed the Derelict Lobster Gear Retrieval, Salvage and Disposal Project for the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. “This is not enough of a study to get at a direct cause-and-effect relationship of ghost traps on certain species, but it will tell us something that will probably prompt future work.”
A key focus of the study: How well are the traps’ biodegradable escape panels, designed to release lobsters and other critters from lost traps, working? That will be determined by analyzing data on the age of each trap and the size of the lobsters found inside it (very small lobsters hang out in lobster traps, coming and going as they please).
The two-year project involved seven two-day cleanup efforts in zones from southern Maine to way Down East. About sixty lobsterboat captains and their crews volunteered to ply the water with grapples, receiving only a stipend for fuel. “We didn’t dictate where they should go,” Ludwig says. “They know where gear is lost as a result of boat traffic or cables or mobile fishing gear. Often they would go where they lost gear, and they’d get into hundreds of traps, none of them their own. It’s a very kinetic environment down there — a lot of movement and turbulence that creates a mystery of where gear might be.” Sometimes, Ludwig says, traps get snagged with each other and other fishing gear, and they roll around the ocean floor like giant tumbleweeds.
The project cast a spotlight on a major bureaucratic entanglement, as well. By state law, the owner of every recovered trap that was still fishable (about half of them were) had to be notified. Any traps that weren’t claimed by their owners were then transported to the Maine Bureau of Marine Patrol’s holding facility in Rockland to be inventoried, stored, and auctioned off. “Having the Marine Patrol do this is a huge cost to the taxpayer,” says Ludwig, who predicts the laws will be amended. “The statutes were intended to identify the Marine Patrol’s role in gear confiscation or molesting situations where they have to have the gear in evidence.”
All those phone calls to lobstermen did have an upside. “Lobster traps cost fifty dollars to a hundred dollars apiece, depending on whether you make them yourself or not,” says Melissa Smith, the Department of Marine Resources scientist who is analyzing the project data. “It was a great feeling to have a fisherman come down to the dock and see his face light up when we tell him we found six of his traps.”
The Way We Were
Baby boomers take to Facebook to ensure their Portland is not forgotten.
In case you haven’t noticed, Portland has been discovered by travel and food writers who adore its big-city offerings and small-town pace, its waterfront, its creative economy, and especially its restaurants. All the attention has provoked a nostalgic backlash from a legion of people who knew the Forest City was cool before it became officially hip.
Approaching five thousand members, the Facebook page “Portland, Maine, Encyclopedia of the 1960s, ’70s & ’80s” is one big, continuous reunion. In wall postings, members are wistful about defunct local rock bands like Sweet Grease (the seventies) and the Kopterz (the eighties). They reminisce about eateries (“Anyone remember Giuseppe’s Diner?”) And they publish photos, hundreds of them — Bob Dylan at the Wax Museum record store in 1978, a young, bearded Tim Sample with hair reaching below his shoulders, and Dogman, aka Dave Koplow, the bane of former Police Chief Michael Chitwood because he walked about town with seven unleashed (but remarkably well-controlled) dogs.
The Facebook page is the outgrowth of a cultural history project headed by Bonnie Blythe, who moved to Portland in the early 1980s, when the city was undergoing a vibrant transformation that is the forerunner to the changes taking place today. Then, as now, real estate developers were revitalizing old neighborhoods, and then, as now, people in their twenties and thirties were moving in and putting their stamp on the city’s character.
“With Portland going through another period of rapid change, I wondered what was going to happen to all that great culture that was here when I came,” Blythe says. Determined that it shouldn’t be forgotten, she began gathering photographs and conducting interviews for a compendium of 1980s Portland movers and shakers, notable events, and gathering places, but she soon broadened her research to include the 1970s and 1960s. “I was part of that great eighties scene, but I felt I should honor whose ground I am standing on,” she explains.
It was Portland Public Library archivist Abraham Schechter who suggested Blythe start the Facebook page, which is dedicated to “the happenings in a small city during a certain period of time.” The response it generated took her by surprise. “It exploded,” she says. “People are always thanking me for creating this thing.”
Members of Portland Encyclopedia include both current and past residents of the Greater Portland area who use the page not only to share memories, but also to find old friends. Many have attended a few live reunions at Miss Portland Diner.
“There is so much great stuff on Facebook, but I worry about what would happen to it if the site crashed,” Blythe says. “For now, though, it’s an amazing tool for people to find each other. It’s been fascinating to watch people interact and respond to stories.”
What’s in a Name?
Maine’s used car dealers hope to spiff up their images.
Used car dealers get no respect, believes Richard Lussier, who has been selling secondhand vehicles for most of his sixty-five years as a car dealer. The owner of Lewis Auto Sales in Lisbon, he has long viewed the “used car dealer” plates he fixes to the cars on his lot as a label akin to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous scarlet letter. “There’s a stigma around those plates,” he says. “They seem to suggest we’re doing something disrespectful.”
That’s why Lussier advocated for — and won — what he calls “an upgrade.” This spring the Maine Secretary of State replaced the used car dealer plates with new ones stamped preowned car dlr.
“I’ve had this on my mind for eight or nine years,” says Lussier, who is eighty-two. “I kept trying to get the state to change it. Finally, Dale Crafts was elected to the House of Representatives, and he got it through for me.” Crafts is a natural ally of Lussier’s cause: his family owns another used car dealership in Lisbon.
A dealer plate is typically placed on a car when it is being taken for a test drive. The number of the specialized license plates that are distributed to each dealer is based on sales figures — one plate for every twenty cars sold.
No act of the legislature was required to change the wording on the dealer license plates, according to Caitlin Chamberlain, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office. Rather, she explains, Representative Crafts simply requested the new wording, and the Secretary of State’s office obliged.
But, we have to ask, isn’t “pre-owned” just another way of saying “used?” And does Lussier worry that the euphemism may backfire, making people even more skeptical of the dealers’ sincerity?
Lussier says no. Rightly or wrongly, he asserts, “used car” has become synonymous with “used up and worn out car” in some people’s minds. Likewise, he continues, the term “used car dealer” is often equated with the outdated image of a shady businessman pawning off lemons on gullible saps. “We have good facilities, we spend a lot of money, we hire a lot of people, and we generate a lot of sales.”
Indeed, dealers have been advertising “pre-owned” cars for some time now, and Maine’s new license plate simply seems to give the term an official stamp of approval. As proponents of plain English, we’re not fans of the new wording, but we can’t deny that it’s been good for some Maine businesspeople’s self-esteem. “A lot of dealers have thanked me for this,” Lussier says. “Now when you go out of state and you have a pre-owned car dealer plate on your car, you feel a little better.”
Prepared for Anything
We’re not likely to see a tsunami in Maine, but we’re ready if we do.
Tsunamis? In Maine? No, it’s not the devastating March tsunami in Japan that makes us ask. It’s the recent posting of more than 130 “Emergency Evacuation Route” directional signs on roadways in coastal towns — signs that were purchased and installed with the help of a thirty thousand dollar tsunami preparedness grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
A tsunami has never been recorded in Maine, so how did the state manage to get a grant for tsunami preparedness?
“We asked,” Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, says simply. The NOAA grant did not immediately rise to the top of the agency’s list of funding opportunities, Miller admits, but then “we learned we could use funding not just to do some research into tsunamis in Maine, but also as a way to further the planning we had been doing for all coastal hazards and complete the signage project we had envisioned.”
The signs have been installed in all of Maine’s coastal counties. Marked routes reach farther inland in York and Cumberland counties, whose sandy beaches and large populations of residents and visitors make them more vulnerable during hurricanes or severe storms.
As for those myths Miller referenced, it turns out that the Atlantic Ocean is not immune to tsunamis. “The greatest threat to us is a large earthquake along the Puerto Rican Trench,” says John Jensenius, the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gray who, along with Maine Geological Survey staff, evaluated Maine’s tsunami risks as part of the grant project. “We’re shielded here by Georges Bank, but if a major earthquake happened along that trench, we would see a tsunami wave of three feet, maybe a
That may not sound especially threatening, but such a wave hitting the shore at high tide could do a surprising amount of damage, Jensenius says.
No one is expecting a tsunami to come crashing into Maine anytime soon, but given our state’s predilection for impressive storms, we’re guessing the evacuation route signs will prove their worth.