The Lobsters Tale Through the Eyes of a Cape Cod Lobsterman

Once upon a time if Cape Codders wanted a grand lobster feast they merely walked down to the shore, waded in and plucked all they could carry by the armload. In fact, the Pilgrim Miles Standish reported that, after a good nor'easter, lobsters could be found in piles eighteen inches deep at the water's edge and gathered without anyone even getting their toes wet. Homarus Americanus, alternatively known as the New England, Maine, or Atlantic lobster, once thrived in such profundity here on Cape Cod that the colonists actually used them, not as food, but as fertilizer for their crops or as bait for their fish hooks. As sustenance, lobster was little more than "poverty food," fit only for feeding indentured servants, slaves, children or cows, in that order.

Here in Massachusetts, the servants did finally rebel and won an amendment to their contracts- No longer would they be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week. Today of course, the lobster ranks as the king of all summer foods, more a celebration than a meal. For lobster-lovers a lazy summer day baking at the beach is merely prelude to the height of indulgence- tying on the lobster bib, unwrapping the special forks, picks, and claw-cracker, and consulting the place mat with its numbers outlining, step-by-step, how to dismember your lobster to extract its full contents.

We New Englanders so love the lobster that Logan Airport has its own lobster pool, whose feisty inhabitants wait to be shipped to all points of the globe by air express. It was not always so. In fact there is little about the history of this pugnacious crustacean that would predict its exclusive rise to popularity in the American diet today. The History On a journey to the Cape guided by Squanto on September 18, 1621, Miles Standish was struck by the omnipresent hordes of lobsters. He found "savages seeking lobsters" in Barnstable, and, at daybreak the following morning in Nauset Harbor, he moved to acquire some of his own: "There we found many lobsters that had been gathered together by the savages, which we made ready under a cliff. The captain set two sentinels behind the cliff to the landward to secure the shallop, and taking a guide with him and four of our company, went to seek the inhabitants; where they met a woman coming for her lobsters, they told her of them, and contented her for them.

" The potential for the creature in the American diet was noted not only here on Cape Cod, of course, but all along the New England coast. In June 1605 Captain George Waymouth, on a trip to Maine, was also struck by the teeming populations of American Lobster, a close cousin to the smaller Spiny lobster of Europe: "And towards night we drew with a small net of twenty fathoms very nigh the shore; we got about thirty very good and great lobsters. which I omit not to report, because it sheweth how great a profit the fishing would be.

" Nevertheless, lobstering as an industry began, not in Maine, but right here on Cape Cod. Populations were so high that the typical lobster went for a mere two or three cents each. In fact, lobstermen on Monomoy's Whitewash Village are said to have made a decent living at a penny apiece. The crustaceans grew to such size that they were often reported up to five and six feet long in the markets of Boston. One gargantua reached a weight of nearly forty-five pounds. Unlike other kinds of fish, lobster must be shipped alive.

Uncooked dead lobsters develop poisonous toxins that will sicken or possibly kill anyone who eats them. Therefore the lobster industry, as we know it today, did not become possible until the early nineteenth century with the development of lobster smacks, sailing vessels with seawater tanks in their hold. By 1840 Provincetown had five of these smacks devoted full-time to shipping lobsters between the Cape and New York City.

The industry was given further boosts by the development of canning factories in New England in the 1840s, and also by the coming of the railroad and improved methods of preserving food with ice. Cape Cod Today At Chatham Harbor on a shimmering summer day, with little wind and no sea running, the picturesque view of lobstermen tending their colorful pots close to shore conjures up an ideal way of life. Even within the fishing industry itself, lobstering is enviously referred to by fellow longliners and gillnetters as an easy "gentleman" fishery. "Well, we are lucky here in Chatham," says 30 year-old Chatham native and lobsterman Ben Bergquist.

"A lot of the best fishing is just 8 miles from shore and, generally all over the Cape, we have very good lobster habitat with good bottom -- all within twenty-five miles. It is a fun fishery when it's good, but it's like anything else-- when it's not going well, it's absolutely miserable, and persistence counts for everything. Everybody who makes money from the ocean has to work to make that money. It's all up to you if you want to get out of bed in the morning and work or not, no matter what the fishery, and lobstering is no different." In a fishery plagued annually by predictions of crashing lobster stocks, Bergquist, who began helping his father at the age of eight and took over the boat, the Benjo, in 1996, says that for himself every year has gotten better. Though he has a Bachelors degree in Environmental Science and the option for a more traditional career on-shore, he sees a strong future for himself in lobstering.

With a young wife, two daughters aged one and four, a mortgage, and a sizeable investment in gear, he has found that hard work and perseverance has paid off just like any other business. "Well, for sure, the successful days are averaged by an equal amount of hard-luck.  Everything's trial and error, and every year's different.

You can never count on the same things happening twice. But at the end of the year it all comes out in the wash. Last year August was great and July was not, but that's not always true.

They (lobsters) were just nowhere to be found in July. And overall we caught them deeper than normal because, for some reason, I think the water was warmer deeper than in shoal water. Once it gets colder, they either hibernate or take off. Water temperature has everything to do with it, and that varies throughout the year and from year to year.

" Thus, in order to survive, lobstermen cannot afford to mindlessly return to the same grounds that were successful in the previous year. They must constantly update their information by learning the lobster's habits and appetites well enough to outsmart him.  Ben's work-day actually begins the previous night when he checks the weather. If the fierceness of the wind and waves prohibits actual fishing, he'll stay on shore, building or repairing traps, working on his boat, or hunting for bait, something of which he never has enough. "I get bait from four or five different boats and some from the markets.

Codfish heads or racks seem to work best. We also use bass, bluefish, flounder, swordfish, tuna. Any scraps at all will work. It's amazing how good lobsters taste with their diet, that something that will eat essentially any garbage in the ocean, can taste so good. I have a freezer so I can stockpile the bait, but it is a real pain for sure.

" His sternman Chris Nash, also of Chatham, not only helps on the water with hauling, rebaiting the traps and sorting the catch, but also with the tedious and ongoing shore duties. "Chris and I alternate days on getting the bait, so it works out -- but it is time-consuming. A tote of bait costs three dollars, and you can bait 30 traps with that. It's relatively cheap, but I've got 800 traps and that's a lot of bait.

We start fishing in April and we're done in December, but the rest of the year we spend doing gear work, building new traps and fixing old ones. I still work with wooden traps, even though I'd rather fish wire. The maintenance is easier, but they don't seem to catch as much -- so seventy-five percent of my strings are still wood." Lobsters in the wild are every bit as pugnacious as they look and are notoriously cannibalistic, so Bergquist neutralizes the larger 'crusher' claw and the smaller 'ripper' claw with tight rubber bands. He prefers the bands (introduced in 1951) because they do not pierce the meat of the lobsters claws like plugs, and thus provide a more handsome lobster in the market.

"They're very aggressive, especially egg-bearing females, or males fighting over food or females. Eggers will really eat everything down to empty shells and attack everything in sight." Fuel is the lobsterman's biggest expense , and then there is the gear investment. Losing a string of traps to a storm or having a line cut by a passing propeller are considered outright losses. There is no such thing as insurance for a lobster trap, and, at fifty dollars a trap, a loss of an entire string is not cheap. A thirty percent loss of pots per season is not uncommon.

Bergquist fishes 800 traps, hauling through it completely every 4 days. For a lobsterman, he says, there is always that fragile moment of suspense when the incoming trap breaks the surface and the lobsters are either there or not there. "Sometimes all you see is a big orange glow coming up and the trap will be just completely filled, and that's real exciting to see that many in the trap. I had one where there was a big 12-pounder, not able to fit, but he had stuck one claw into the trap and, when I hauled him up, he was hanging onto the bait bag with everything he had.

I almost went overboard trying to grab him. (Scenes from Lobstering on the Benjo with Ben Bergquist can be seen at http://www.MooncusserFilms.

com)   But my worst day lobstering was the first day I ever hauled as a captain. I couldn't find any of my pots. At first I thought that everything was gone, it was so foggy and rainy.

So I just drove blindly around in circles, looking and looking. Finally I found a buoy and realized that my LORAN was mis-set. I turned it off, then back on, and we were back on track. The day was salvageable, but it sure didn't start off too special. And I have days where I come back with only 40 pounds.

Those are never good days but, like I said, it works out." Bergquist's boat, the Benjo, has a seawater tank in the hold that is maintained by a pump that circulates oxygen in the same way as a household fish tank. This is where the lobsters are kept alive and fresh until delivery to the lobster pools of fish markets on shore, and it's the real key to their freshness. "If you're buying a lobster, it's either alive or dead, and if it's alive, it's fresh. Sure, it's kind of neat to buy them right off the boat, but any market on the Cape should be the same. I sell mine to Nickerson Fish & Lobster, which is right on the pier, five feet from where I land.

You might say that's fresh." While unloading at the Chatham pier, Bergquist is often approached by those on the upper observation deck seeking what they perceive as a fresher alternative to the restaurant or market lobster pool. "People ask me, 'Will you sell me some lobsters?' and I say, 'Sure, what do you want?' I give them a lower price than they will pay in the market, but a higher price than I will get. A lot of time people will be so shocked that I said 'yes', they'll get all jammed up about it. They don't know what they want exactly or they bicker, and I don't end up selling to them. And I also get calls from friends, 'Ben, I'm having a party and I need 20 lobsters!' But it's not a big part of my income.

I could have a tank at my house and a big sign that said "LOBSTERS," but when I get in, I'd just as soon be done with it. The majority of Bergquist's lobsters are eaten right here on the Cape, but his father once shipped internationally to Scandinavia in large quantity, driving right onto the runway of the airport with the good hard-shell lobsters packed in sturdy Styrofoam boxes. That sort of thing is still big business here on the Cape, with a host of mail-order and dot com companies willing to air ship lobsters alive and kicking to your door, complete with Cape Cod seaweed, clams, and corn and potatoes. According to Bergquist, the best way to keep a lobster alive is right in your refrigerator or on ice in a cooler -- anywhere cool and wet so long as the lobster is not sitting in freshwater, where it will drown. To cook them, Bergquist recommends steaming or grilling, not boiling, them. The right amount of time, which depends on their size, should never exceed twenty or thirty minutes.

"Head first or tail first it doesn't matter. My wife doesn't like to be in the room either way. I like butter, and cocktail sauce is good too.

I'm a Cape Codder. I eat it with butter, and beer -- that's really the key ingredient." Lobster-lovers are concerned, of course, not only with freshness but with price, and Bergquist is visibly uncomfortable when talking prices, "I get about seven bucks a pound, so a 21-pounder, the largest I've ever seen, would get about a $140.

I've never had one in a restaurant. I hardly ever pay attention to restaurant prices. I get $5.50 for a select lobster and that same lobster might go for $30. But wholesalers have a lot to deal with -- lobsters that nobody wants, or fatalities.

" He is careful to point out that, though he feels prices are fair to the lobstermen, it's no get-rich-quick scheme. Lobstering is good steady income in a fishery that is unpredictable at best. "You can make a whole year's pay in 3 months, but it goes the other way too. If you can deal with that fluctuation mentally, you'll be fine, but you have to like it to do it.

There are brutally cold mornings and times when the fish just aren't there, and you make the best of it. If the government lets me fish, I think it's possible to fish the rest of my life. I'd like to go another ten years for sure, I know that much. But I hope by then everything's paid for and I can get out if I want." The number of lobstermen on Cape Cod has dropped steadily from a high of 1,865 in 1988 to around 1,500 today.

But nearly every town on the Cape, from Sandwich to Provincetown, still supports men like Ben Berquist, from whom you can land your own cooler full of lobsters, bypassing the restaurant and market pools altogether. "In the summer I get in between one and four in the afternoon," says Berquist, adding quickly, "Then again, in the fall we can be in by noontime. It's really tough to pinpoint.

" So it may be that if you can intercept a lobsterman, in his uncertain daily round here on Cape Cod, you have learned something of the lobster himself. For the lobsterman, like his quarry, takes some hunting, a bit of planning, and a touch of luck to catch. .

By: Christopher Seufert

New York City

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