Charles J. Doane con­sid­ers the re­la­tion­ship be­tween sailors and fish­er­men as the lob­ster in­dus­try faces a new threat

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Maine fish­er­men may be in hot wa­ter as lob­sters mi­grate north

Ilearned to sail on the Maine coast as a boy, and one of the things my el­ders taught me was to re­spect fish­ing gear. If you got caught up with a lob­ster pot, you did ev­ery­thing you could to get clear with­out cut­ting the pot warp. It rep­re­sented a fam­ily’s liveli­hood and thus was sacro­sanct.

I crossed a Ru­bi­con of sorts in the late 1990s, when the lob­ster fish­ery was boom­ing and lob­ster pots were so thick on the wa­ter you felt like a run­ning back when cruis­ing look­ing des­per­ately for clear lanes to sail in. The cri­sis point came one sum­mer when I an­chored at Burnt Is­land, tak­ing great care to stay clear of the many pots that lit­tered the har­bor there. I woke in the morn­ing to find my ground tackle en­meshed with a pot warp any­way. True to my up­bring­ing I jumped over­board and spent 20 min­utes in the wa­ter, which in those days was very cold, and fi­nally suc­ceeded in un­tan­gling the mess. I was nearly hy­pother­mic when I crawled back aboard my boat.

I re-an­chored in a clear spot and spent the day hik­ing the is­land, af­ter which I was roused at dawn the next morn­ing by the deep rum­ble of a lob­ster boat’s dry ex­haust quite close by. Peer­ing out a port­light, I saw the man work­ing the boat drop a pot—same col­ors as the one I’d saved the morn­ing be­fore—right where any sapi­ent mariner would as­sume my an­chor must have been. I re­turned to my berth to sleep some more, and sure enough, when I woke again found the pot warp twisted round my ground tackle. This time, rather than swim to save it, I cut it free with a knife.

This episode taught me two things about cruis­ing the Maine coast. You should only re­spect fish­er­men as far as they are will­ing to re­spect you, and you should al­ways carry a wet­suit, just in case. I have quar­reled with many a pot warp in the 20 years since. I caught them of­ten on the bilge keels of my old Golden Hind 31. I caught them some­times on the rud­der skeg of my Tan­ton 39. How­ever, I never caught one on a pro­pel­ler—un­til this past sum­mer, that is, when I was cruis­ing the coast on my Boréal 47. The prop on this boat is be­hind a long shal­low keel and has a line-cut­ter on it, so I thought I was safe. I did hear an ur­gent tap­ping sound un­der the boat, then saw a pot buoy come clear with a short length of sev­ered warp on it. The boat kept mov­ing for­ward, and I as­sumed the line-cut­ter had done its job. An hour later, though, when I put the en­gine in re­verse to stop at the moor­ing I was pick­ing up, the shaft seized up and the en­gine stalled.

One thing that has changed in the past 20 years is that the wa­ter in the Gulf of Maine is now much warmer. When I was young, wa­ter tem­per­a­tures in the sum­mer never rose much above the mid-50s. But that day I tan­gled my prop last sum­mer my in­stru­ments told me it was 68 de­grees F. I ac­tu­ally had a de­bate with my­self: did I re­ally need my wet­suit to dive on the prop? In the end I elected to use it sim­ply be­cause I had it. But it didn’t take long to cut the line free, and I would have been fine with­out it.

The lob­ster pop­u­la­tion in Maine has been boom­ing the last few years, pri­mar­ily be­cause the wa­ter far­ther south is too warm to sup­port lob­sters any­more. They’ve all crawled north to stay alive, and the ques­tion now is how long will it be be­fore they need to crawl even far­ther north. Ac­cord­ing to sev­eral re­ports I’ve seen, the Gulf of Maine is warm­ing faster than any other body of wa­ter on the planet, so the an­swer may well be not very long.

I will con­fess that for a while af­ter that in­ci­dent at Burnt Is­land I saw fish­er­men as the neme­ses of cruis­ing sailors. But at­ti­tudes like this are hard to sus­tain. Part of me will not be sad when there are no more pots to dodge while sail­ing the coast. But a larger part will mourn their dis­ap­pear­ance. Lob­ster­ing has been the life-blood of this place, and Maine lob­ster­men have al­ways fished re­spon­si­bly. They do not de­serve the fate that awaits them. s

A close call in Maine’s Penob­scot Bay

One sailor’s some­what dra­matic so­lu­tion to the prob­lem of Down East lob­ster pots

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