Beal tells of Forty Years of Lobster Fishing

By Terry Hussey

"I’ve been lobster fishing since I was old enough to get in my father’s boat. I supposed there are other things I could do, but I don’t know of anything I’d rather do," said Owen Beal, talking to a packed house at the Milbridge Historical Society on June 11. "Lobster fishing has changed a lot in the last 50 or 60 years," said Beal. "Almost all the equipment is changed."

Kinds of Traps

Beal showed the group several old wooden lobster traps from the museum's collection. "Traps used to made of oak or ash," he said. "Or they would go into the woods and find small spruce tress that could be bent to make the old rounded top traps." He compared the old wooden traps to a new wire trap. "With the rope and all, for $100 you could have 50 traps," said Beal. "A new wire trap, without the rope or floats, costs $42."

Beal said that when the old wooden traps were first put into the water, you had to put three or four rocks in them for ballast. "It takes something to keep them on the bottom until the wood soaks up the water," he said.

"New traps wouldn't fish so good at first," he said. "For the first three days they would bubble and sizzle as they filled up with water. Wooden traps are easier to haul," said Beal. They're lighter to lift, and they slide over the boat easier.

Bricks are used in the wire traps for weight. "Some people put as many as 4-6 bricks in the trap, but when you get to be my age, three bricks is enough," Beal said.

Beal said that fishermen used to coat all the ropes in their traps with boiled tar, to make them last longer. "They had a little metal pot to boil the tar in, and they would let the ropes dry all over the ledges. You can still see the tar on the rocks in places."

Today's fishermen use nylon or polyethylene ropes. "They will last longer than the traps," said Beal. All traps today have vents which allow the smaller lobsters to escape.

Buoys

Originally, all lobster buoys were made of wood. They were made of black cedar, painted in a variety of colors. Some lobstermen used to take a lot of pride in producing fancy, carefully planed and painted buoys. They were a work of art. "Fishermen always try to pick a color combination that's not already in use in their area," he said.

"I don't like to paint much, so it's no big deal to me. I just paint my buoys, and I don't pay a whole lot of attention if one of the colors runs over the other," said Beal.

Later glass bottles were used as lobster floats. "They used just about any bottle they could get hold of," said Beal. "They put a two-cent rubber stopper in them and used them. Floats hold the rope off the bottom and keep them from getting so tangled.

Lobster buoys today are made of Styrofoam. Each buoy has the lobsterman's initials and his lobster number. They are still painted in colors unique to that fisherman.

Government requires Two kinds of Tags

"Stiff government regulations in the past few years have put a hardship on the small towns around here," said Beal. Beal explained to the group about the tags every fisherman must have on his traps.

Traps have two kinds of tags

Government regulations require that every fisherman have a personal tag. Often the tag number comes down in the family, with a young fisherman getting his tag from a grandfather who has retired. A new fisherman is allowed just 300 traps the first year. He can add 100 a year, up to a total of 800 traps.

In addition, he must have a trap tag. That number appears on every trap and buoy. A few years ago, fishermen could have up to 1200 traps. Then it went down to 1000, and now the limit is 800.

Fishermen are issued 880 tags, with the extra 80 used as replacement tags when a trap is lost or a tag damaged.

Beal explained that he fishes with two traps on each line. Some fish with three or more on a line. He said that, in a storm, two traps hold the line better and keep it from bouncing around so much, battering the traps.

Into the Parlor and then the Bedroom

Beal showed the historians that the front part of the trap where the lobster enters is called the parlor. "They feed in the parlor," he said, "because the bait bag is attached there. Going through the second net puts them into the rear or bedroom of the trap. "Supposedly, they can't get out of the bedroom, but I have to tell you that I don't think a lobster ever goes anywhere that he can't away from. I've seen a trap that's been left out for many days at a time, and there are never any lobsters in it. Where did they go? They escaped from the bedroom," said Beal.

Just Like Any Other Species

Beal showed the historians two live lobsters, one a female and one a male. "People always ask me how you can tell a male from a female, and I tell them, 'It's just like any species. You turn them upside down.'"

Beal showed that the male has two big, hard flippers in the middle of his body. Females have two smaller, softer flippers there.

"So what we have is an inch a quarter to work with," he said. If they don't fall within that inch and a quarter, they go back into the water.

Beal said that female lobsters are marked with a V notch on their tails the first time they are caught bearing eggs. Any time they are caught after that, whether they are bearing eggs or not, they must be released. "These are our future," he said.

He also showed them a double gauge lobster measure. Lobsters must be more than 3 _ inches from the eye socket to the end of the body. If they're smaller than that, they go back. The other side of the gauge is for maximum size. If they're larger than five inches, they also must go back, as these are the breeding stock.

"If you get caught with short lobsters, it's expensive," he said. "The first five will cost you $5 apiece, and after that, they are $25 apiece."

"Shedders are Sweeter"

Beal explained that mature lobsters shed each summer. They come into the shallower bay waters to shed during the warmest part of the summer. He said the shell in the middle of the back splits, allowing the lobster to slip out of his old shell, leaving it totally intact. "They're defenseless and almost transparent like a piece of tissue paper when they first shed, and it takes almost six weeks for that shell to harden up again."

Beal said that many people prefer a hard shell lobster, but to his taste, nothing is sweeter than a shedder. "The closer they come to shedding that hard shell, the tougher they get," he said.

When asked about how the marine patrol can police the thousands of traps for tags and other regulations, Beal said, "It's 95% honor system. But they do haul some traps and check the numbers, inside and out. If someone's traps get checked, it's usually because someone else has reported that person for some offense, he said.

"It's just like any other business," said Beal. "Most people are honest, but there are always one or two rotten apples."

Times Have Changed

When asked about the stories one hears about lobstermen cutting each other's lines or hauling each other's traps, Beal said, "Not so much anymore. It used to be like that. It used to be that there were Milbridge waters, and fishermen from Harrington wouldn't dare cross over and fish in our water, but that's not so true anymore. The first one there sets his traps, and if someone comes along later, he might set his traps alongside."

"It's big business now. Everything is so expensive," said Beal. A can of bait used to be 50 cents. It was waste from the sardine factories. Today it costs $6.50, and sometimes as much as $10. And boats are so expensive. Beal said that it costs over $150,000 to buy a boat and put 800 traps in the water. "And I'm not talking top of the line either," he said.

The audience was clearly charmed by Beal's presentation and asked him question after question.

"Fishermen are the most arrogant, independent people you ever want to meet," said Beal "And you better not cross one of them, because if you do, you won't have to reckon with just one. You'll reckon with every single one of them. They stick together. If anyone runs into trouble, you can believe that everyone will be there to stand by him and help. Every single one will be there to lend a hand," he said.