Reconsider the Lobster

For one New England town, the recession threatens to become a storm too rough to weather the old-fashioned way

by Artie Niederhoffer, editor; illustrations by Julia Nave, guest artist

lobster2Though I have been coming to Vinalhaven, Maine—an island with a year round population of 1,300—every summer of my life, I had never seen my great-grandfather’s fish shack from this angle. I have passed by it jogging with my sisters and seen it from behind on my way to a hike or a picnic, but never from the middle of the harbor, darting between buoys on my sixteen-year-old cousin’s lobster boat. Though neither my cousin nor his dad, who doubles in his spare time as sternman, is the type to wax poetic about this day job, the day I spent with them snapping pictures of the jagged coastline seemed, to me, endlessly romantic. For twenty years I have been returning to Vinalhaven, feeling a little less like the proverbial summer jerk each time, and I felt a day out to haul might be my final rite of passage.

This summer in particular, the experience seemed all the more pressing since the industry is, without a doubt, in a state of turmoil—anywhere from a rough patch to an irreversible crisis depending on whom you hear it from. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Vinalhaven, it’s that you’re sure to hear it from someone. And between their thick sideways drawl and the New Englander’s dry humor, it is tough to tell what is sarcasm, what is rumor and innuendo, and what is the reality of the situation.

My cousin taught me to stuff bait bags and band the lobsters’ claws together “to keep them from killing each other,” he insisted, though more than a few seemed to have it in for my arm, too. My difficulty with the basic slip knot and barely concealed horror at the bag of rotting herring amused him, but I felt a swell of pride when he finally declared me “a natural,” and I thought it may not be just a figure of speech. Hauling is in my blood, and being introduced as Tyler’s cousin, whose Vinalhaven blood goes back for generations, seemed to make the intimidatingly hearty men I met later that day at the dealer relax in my cloyingly inquisitive company.

At the dealer, which is located on a raft in the middle of a bay, the grizzled and salty-bearded fishermen of my Deadliest Catch expectations traded sardonic chuckles, dragging in their wakes buckets packed with ninety pounds of live lobsters. “The radio said ‘it was only a .22,’” one of them said, shaking his head, “‘only a .22.’” The shot had been the-all-too- likely result of an escalated conflict over hauling territory on the neighboring Matinicus Island, news of which broke early that morning. The victim, Chris Young, had been shot in the neck and was reported to be paralyzed. For a community whose biggest crime threats tend more toward improper recycling practices, the people on the raft seemed surprisingly nonplussed by the news, discussing it with dry-as-granite humor and the palpable sense of gumption I have long associated with my many relatives from Maine.

While I have known few New Englanders who make a habit of optimism, the mood today veered toward grim and lacked that familiar twinkle of irony that usually accompanies their cursing. Many of these men were friendly with Young and worried about the imminent retaliation they fully expected. In an uncharacteristically proactive move, police placed a two week ban on Matinicus lobster fishing, which was sure only to make matters worse for the people already approaching a state of economic desperation. Sole lobstering rights to their waters and minimal law enforcement have given Matinicus—or “The Matinican Republic” as one young lobsterman affectionately called it—a reputation for lawlessness.

lobsterboat

But there is no doubt the shooting was the result of unrelentingly high tensions since the price of lobster dipped at the end of last summer and has since shown no sign of recovery. Some lobstermen, who historically made shockingly good livings off fishing this true luxury item, are now not making a profit at all. One man on the raft talked about a friend of his whose engine blew out in January. In July he was still trying to come up with the $1,500 he needed to repair it, faced with the double insult of the stubbornly low price of lobster and unwilling banks.

Lobstering is not only a point of pride in Vinalhaven’s history, but an economic necessity for the island, as one of its two major industries (the other is tourism). There has been talk of a state-wide “tie-up” in which lobstermen would refuse to fish in protest of unfair prices. But when I asked the men on board the raft about this possibility and whether they will participate, they smiled and shook their heads: “Fishermen are too independent to strike, isn’t that right?” one sun-spotted fisherman asked another, patting the side of his boat. When I asked him if lobstermen had ever unionized, he broke into a boisterous laugh that seemed to speak for everyone on the raft: he, for one, was not the picketing type.

A strike would not have been without precedent. In 2007, fishermen overcame their solitary natures and barricaded the harbor. The effort, which was meant to draw publicity and raise prices, only lasted a day, not long enough to drive supply down. This year many lobstermen who have found themselves living day-to-day say they simply can’t afford a tie-up. One fisherman recalled the 2007 barricade with the air of a sell-out remembering the simple and idealistic days of his youth: “We were getting $3.50 then.” Today, any fisherman would gladly settle on the historic low (but liveable) $3 per pound.

 

When international banks collapsed last year, Canadian processors were unable to buy the millions of pounds of lobsters they usually take off Maine’s hands. On top of that, when the economy as a whole declined, people simply stopped buying lobster, which is usually among the most expensive menu item at restaurants. This combination of factors left lobsters in excess supply at the height of the season in October 2008 and virtually without demand as restaurants and wholesale buyers also looked for ways to cut back. The worst prices were still to come, and fishermen have not found a way out. Dealers suspected prices to bottom out at the end of the summer before the shedders, lobsters with newer soft shells, acquire a hardier shell that dealers can afford to pay more for. Even then, the market for pricier lobsters looks limited.

The island’s second main economy, tourism, is also struggling, although in ways that are harder to quantify. Maine’s summer tourist economy suffered from uncharacteristically low temperatures and high levels of rain. Whatever the reason, the ferry boat line, usually such a hectic annoyance, was eerily short and sweet, and the future of establishments that cater to summer people, like the one restaurant that features lobster risotto, remains uncertain.

In 2006, the New York Times featured an article on the front page of its Travel section entitled “A Hardworking Community with a Leisure Class.”  The article described a Vinalhaven restaurant as a “no frills breakfast joint” where you can get “fishcakes…and an earful about the latest lobster catch or the price of plywood.” It confirms that the island’s working class community was very much part of its appeal and charm.

When I saw the harbor of my ancestors, picturesque on the cover of the newspaper, I reacted protectively, dreading the inevitable day, already then at its beginning, when BMWs with New York plates would pack the ferry line and fill up the single parking lot on Main Street. Of course, I was also aware of my own hypocrisy, in some regard a wealthy tourist myself. But my cousins always assured me there was a hierarchy of summer people, and without inquiring too much, I assumed my relation to them put me at the top and felt free to criticize the typical condescension of the New York Times that sought to exploit the so-called working class charm of my island. This summer, however, between biking down the center of Main Street during midday and walking right up to the harborside table without a wait, that criticism seemed naïve in itself. Ideally, tourists would not overrun the island, but the alternative might be devastating.

The interdependence of Vinalhaven’s leisure and working classes runs deeper than in most vacation towns. The leisure-class-at-large’s taste for fine food is what made lobstering such a profitable profession for so many years. Though lobster is neither particularly rare or expensive to catch, it is a luxury food typically consumed at times of celebration. The reputation that lobsters are a delicacy that demand top price buoyed the salary of lobstermen for years but made them vulnerable when the economy faltered in 2007.

Lobster was a luxury that families looking to tighten their belts could easily cut. No one exemplifies the trend better than my own family.  Last summer, I would have said there is only one way to eat a lobster: A new family member is coming to town and it calls for celebration. You buy enough lobster to make omelets the next day, (why not? It is a special occasion). You can’t get the smell of lobster off your hands until morning. You stain your clothes but it is worth saving the shame of donning a bib in front of locals. The city-dwelling side of the family might puncture a few uncalloussed fingers on a claw. You support the local wine shop that caters to summer tourists, and after it all, the ice cream shop. This summer, the crowd was smaller. Many of my family, like my dad, who works in the stock market, and my uncle, who works in real estate, were too tied up with their own economic woes to make it to the island for more than a weekend. The result was an empty summerhouse and less cause for celebration. 

Still, if it weren’t for the suffering of the lobster industry, the deflation of the summer tourist economy would be just another example of the greater recession and might only require a little gumption, something Islanders would surely be able to handle. Others speculate the industry may be one of the recession’s permanent victims. An employee of the Vinalhaven Co-op, another of the island’s lobster dealers, said of the crisis, “If you ask me, Vinalhaven is going to become a summer community again, just like a lot of places are,” without betraying sentimentality. When I related this opinion to one of my cousins, she told me quicker than you can say “East Hampton,” in the form of a furrowed brow, that the position was extreme. In keeping with tradition of the fiercely independent islanders, no one can agree about the industry’s future, much less a solution.

The state of Maine has launched several well-meaning, if characteristically half-hearted, attempts to help, from community lobster dinners to a governor-ordered task force meant to review the problem and identify possible areas of growth for new markets. The resulting Maine Lobster Promotion Council’s first public step to expand the market was to advertise the assemblage of a Guinness Book of Records-sized lobster roll. If this idea seems hokey to the point of farce, the fault might not be a lack of creativity but in the meager budget The Maine Promotion Council recieved. Maine usually ranks among the poorer states in the Union, but the former owner of the island’s third lobster dealership, Peter Jones, explained the issue is really one of mentality:

“The state is gun-shy when it comes to marketing. It’s a very old-fashioned state,” he said to me from his dock. With a palpable awareness that he voiced an unpopular opinion, Jones also ventured, “This place needs new blood.” And, to me, it went without saying: that blood had better be blue. With problems like these, the arrival on Vinalhaven last winter of the heiress to the L.L. Bean fortune, Linda Bean, just as the industry took a turn for the bleaker, seems like it might have been a dream come true.

Linda Bean is trying to sell the masses on “lobstah,” as she calls it in her (possibly exaggerated) accent in televised infomercials for frozen lobster tail bisque. Her company, Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, also opened a lobster roll stand outside L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport and is billing the island staple as a low-carb treat for tourists. Some of Linda Bean’s ideas, like the one to make the bands that hold lobsters’ claws together printed with the name of the port from which they were hauled, struck me as presicely the kind of bait that would open up new markets at places concerned with food sources, like Whole Foods. Bean is also pursuing a certification that will advertise lobster as a sustainable seafood choice, which is true by any standard.

Jones was eager to attach himself to her project, selling his company to her in January, after he predicted the industry’s problem was not going away on its own. Though he is still not fully confident in Bean’s ideas, he was open to change, and, frankly, open to the opportunity to “jump ship,” in his words, now that he would no longer be its captain. Jones, who is handsome and charismatic, and his wife, who is perky and petite, still manage the dealership while Linda Bean herself makes sporadic visits to the island and mostly operates from away. In the meantime, the Jones’ dutifully expound her business philosophy, throwing around marketing buzzwords with a sensibility that is more Austin, Texas than Vinalhaven, Maine. He uses terms like “consumer perception” and describes the ability of a commodity to “tell a story,” with all the optimism of a good capitalist from away.

Jones explained to me the possibility that all lobster needs to make its comeback is good advertising and that the facts support the effort to bill lobster as the sustainable seafood choice. Not many people know this, but lobster happens to be one of the most sustainable agricultural products around. “Biologically, it is one of the healthiest industries in the world. [Lobstermen] have nurtured their population over a period of 100 years so that there are more lobster now than there ever were,” he said. “They are hearty animals,” exceptions in the sea for their ability to withstand changes in pressure. Undersized or egg-laying lobsters can be thrown back without any harm to their health or fertility.

Alaskan salmon, in contrast, has become the darling of the Whole Foods set, for lesser merits. While, in reality, wild salmon tops the endangered species list, West Coast foodies flock to it. The arrival of Copper River Salmon to Seattle in May was publicized by a ceremonial entrance of the first Air Alaska flight. In a bizarre public foodie ritual, the first fish was tossed from the plane and caught by the Seattle Seahawks’ coach. This kind of marketing is economic genius on the West Coast, where a  wealthy population of eco-gastronomists will pay Copper River Salmon’s $30 per pound asking price. But Mainers are upfront about their disinterest in gimmicks. After all, the lobster has enoyed a century without depending on this kind of play. Efforts to remarket lobster have met less than friendly audiences in Vinalhaven, a population  that seems, by nature or force of habit, both suspicious of newcomers and wary of change.

 

After talking to Jones, I found it hard to see why the people of Vinalhaven had not greeted Linda Bean with gratitude. Back at my summer house, I confessed to my cousins that Peter Jones had really won me over and wanted to know why he had not sold them on Linda Bean, too. “Sure he won you over,” Shawn said with raised eyebrows, presumably accusing me (or hoping) that the interest I took in his ideas had something to do with his attractiveness. He explained that when Linda Bean sailed in, “money pouring out the pockets,” in the middle of an economic crisis, she wasn’t welcome. An employee of the Co-op also cited the resentment that has tainted Bean’s presence: “She came in here and tried to take over. And that is not something, in a small town, that you try to do.” Regarding wealthy and frivolous outsiders with apprehension is tradition on Vinalhaven, but this kind of reverse snobbery seemed, at the same time, to border on self-destruction.

When I asked Jones why Bean has met such harsh criticism from locals, he did not miss a beat before stating: “She’s from Away.” Away, to islanders, is no abstract term, but a place that begins as soon as their coastline ends and spans the rest of the world. Perhaps thanks to his “natural charm,” or because no one can blame him for jumping ship, Jones has won over the Island community despite also being from Away. No one on the island faults Jones for selling out, but he is frustrated that islanders have not warmed up to his employer, who he maintains is an impressive businesswoman with new ideas for the future of lobstering that deserve a chance. “She scares me,” he said of her ability as a businesswoman. “She gets three hours of sleep a night. [Financially,] this has been a huge investment for her,” he said with exasperation. “And they won’t even sit down and talk to her.”

The employees of the Vinalhaven Co-op are predictably annoyed at the very mention of Bean. But, they insist, though she is their competitor, their reaction is one of irritation, not anxiety. They resent that, thanks to her inheritance, she has been able to infiltrate (and take big risks in) an industry in which she has no stake. Their distaste for her wealth has a practical basis too because, as one employee put it, “she can operate in the red as long as she wants.” The predominant view concerning the future of lobstering, therefore, is fatalistic, but not necessarily without hope. All the lobster industry needs, they believe, is (like most things,) for the general economy to recover and the strength to weather the storm in the meantime. Linda Bean’s approach, they say, couldn’t be further from the mark.

After asking whether I was “a reporter, or something,” the Co-op’s general manager, Carol Hamilton reluctantly gave me her opinion on the matter. I admitted I planned to write a piece for a college publication but that my interest has more to do with my family members, whom I name-dropped. I asked whether Bean had taken any of her business. “No. I’m not worried about her. I’ve taken some of her [business],” she said with a sly smile and, even though she was being quite sincere, a sarcastic tone that tinted her every syllable. According to the Co-op, business has improved since Bean came to town.

But get an islander to drop the sarcasm, and you will find reasons that go beyond stubbornness for the collective distaste for Bean. First, they blame Linda Bean for buying out the trucking company, giving her open access to spots on the ferry that would otherwise go to freight for the grocery store or large home deliveries. Bean was forced to take on perishables other than lobster as part of her new trucking business because of the local outcry. But she drew the line there, and locals were sometimes unable to receive deliveries of large, non-perishable items like refrigerators. (Jones claimed the trucking controversy amounted to a misunderstanding). Others take issue with her character; she has run for governor of Maine before under an extreme right wing campaign, sure to guarantee unpopularity on an island that voted President Obama in by a huge majority.

Though Jones spoke passionately about Bean’s business philosophy, his true connection to the place came out when he took a pragmatic tone. He explained that marketing may never change the fact that huge out of state processing companies drive the price up and down at will. This forces the next-door Co-op to respond to the prices, regardless of the market. The number of middlemen required to sell a live product makes blame difficult to place and prices easily manipulated. Because of laws meant to regulate the market, Vinalhaven’s three competing dealers are not allowed to agree on a price together, as they do in Canada. If this were permitted, he believes they would agree on a fair price that reflects demand.

The state of Maine already has a law in place that prohibits lobstering on Sundays, in an attempt to keep supply down, and Jones thinks an extension of the law to restrict fishing to Monday through Wednesday would help prices recover. But he senses this rule would be impossible to impose.

“These lobsters have been nurtured for a hundred years. For $3 a pound? Keep ‘em on the bottom.” Still, lobster should not be treated as the luxury item it once was if it is to gain the new markets it needs to survive. “I think of them as a New York strip steak, not a filet mignon,” Jones said. He visibly winced as he confessed that, in his opinion, “lobstermen were overpaid. $4 a pound is not a fair price for shedders.”

 “They would kill me for saying that,” he added, perhaps thinking of the recent Matinicus event. Though Jones hesitated to voice his full-fledged confidence in Bean’s practices, he allowed, “what I like about Linda Bean is she’s not afraid to do things differently.”

 

Back at the Co-op, Hamilton took the opposite stance. “It’s not always good to stand out,” she said, thinking perhaps of the one lobster in the tank sporting brightly colored and curly-cued claw bands and looking foolish among the serious lobsters with a hundred years of tradition behind them. “It could backfire. Different can be deadly.”

While it may sound backward, it is important to remember that this thinking has contributed to the healthy population of lobsters today, not to mention the nostalgia upon which Vinalhaven’s tourism is able to capitalize so successfully. Their insularity and resistance to change has ensured the survival both of the tourist economy and to the lobster industry. It is the same man who charmed the writer for the New York Times with his earful about the price of plywood that could now guarantee him an earful about that nuisance Linda Bean.

In interviews, Bean has repeated her altruistic intentions. Asked why she decided to enter the lobster business so late in her career, she told a local radio station, “I was concerned about my fishermen…They’re working very hard but…prices are killing us.” When I mentioned this to Hamilton, she turned the question on me: “Does she cut you a deal when you buy a sweater from her catalogue?” And shooting me a familiar look, reminded me, “She’s not in it for the people.” When I ask her about the best possible scenario, she gestures down the dock, “We’ll be looking at an empty building.”

In another positive scenario, Meredith Richards, a teacher at the local school said the crisis in the lobster industry has positively affected academics.  “It used to be that the boys would tune out of school as soon as they were old enough to go fishing on their own. Now it seems like that might not be an option for much longer, and they’re paying attention.” A CC freshman from Vinalhaven confirmed that the less viable lobstering sounds, the more his classmates have considered college. 

Since leaving Vinalhaven this summer, I have seen little publicity about the industry crisis. I suppose this is only one in a slew of industries receding with the economy. In restaurants and grocery stores, the price of lobster seems virtually unchanged despite reports that the situation in Maine has yet to improve. One night shortly after returning, my dad took me out to dinner at The Four Seasons, a top New York City restaurant that specializes in seasonal cuisine. I noticed that underneath grass fed bison filet with fois gras for $55, the menu listed lobster as “market price.” I told my dad that if this were true, it would be cheaper than eating at the hotdog stand across the street. It seemed rude to bring this up with the waiter, so I held my tongue and ordered the steak. ~

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