The journey of an Island industry: from the sea to your plate.
by Tina Miller
I have often wondered about the discovery of lobsters. How Native Americans living on the coast between North Carolina and Canada stumbled upon an armored brownish insect-like creature from the sea, washed ashore in a time when the seabeds were overrun with shellfish and crustaceans. Their semi menacing appearance and need to be kept alive to be eaten may be what gave the American lobster a relatively slow start in the food chain. Lobsters were used as bait and fertilizer and eventually fed to servants long before fisheries started harvesting them in the mid 1800s.
Sometime during the middle of the 19th century, when commercial fishing and fisheries took hold, everything changed for the rags-to-riches American lobster. In New England, lobster started to appear on menus, and a lot of people started eating it. With the development of transportation and refrigeration, lobster itself started to take off—and the sea creature became a luxury food.
With the popularity of these crustaceans increasing in the late 19th century, the American lobster population had started showing a decline. States then began a long history of regulations to protect the lobsters and fisheries.
A Vineyard family fishing history
South of Cape Cod, we live in our own micro-climate, and the best way to see how the lobster industry is doing on the Vineyard is to speak to people who are actually doing it, like the Larsen family, who have a rich fishing history on the Island.
The Larsen’s own most of the fish markets on the Island from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven to Menemsha. Those who are not in the markets selling seafood are out on the water supplying the stores. Before opening fish markets, this large Norwegian clan fished Island waters with their parents and uncles in the days where fleets of fishing boats crowded into picturesque Menemsha.
John Larsen is the nephew of Louis Larsen, who is in his late eighties and lives at Beetlebung corner in Chilmark. John is a quiet man with ocean weathered hands and a shy smile. John grew up fishing, like his siblings and cousins. John’s father, Bajarne, started fishing in his teens on a small dragger. By age 19, he ran his own boat and crew.
John never felt the same pressure of his father’s generation. He says he enjoyed spending time with his father working and learning the ways of the sea. When John was 10 years old, he and his cousin Danny, who was eleven, took their first trip out swordfishing, where they learned about cleaning fish and life on a boat. As John grew older, he worked summers on longline boats, cleaning and hauling fish. Though he did not receive a “share,” he did get paid. John said at the end of the year his dad would put some money in his bank account for all his hard work.
A changing industry
In 1968 when John was in high school, his father died. That was when John’s uncle Louis took him and his cousin Louie lobstering. They got paid for their work with dollar bills, but also with lobster traps. They were given 10 traps each.
In 44 years John has seen the Vineyard lobster industry through highs and lows. By the late 70s and early 80s offshore lobstering had exploded on the Vineyard. Lobsters were actually being exported off the Island. Today it’s the opposite. Summer lobsters are imported here to keep up with seasonal demand.
The industry was building like a freight train until the late 1990s. At that time, the government bought out ground fishing boats and bought into the lobster industry. John says, “It became an arms race with no trap limits; some guys had as many as 2,000 traps.”
Finally regulation stepped in and began to regulate traps down to 800 per fisherman. This changed again when trap limits were determined by a person’s fishing history over a three-year period. The maximum caught in one of the three years was the new limit. This has since changed.
For John, 2004 was the worst year. It seemed the industry finally caught up with itself. Overfishing and shell disease, thought to be from oil spills in Buzzards Bay and off Point Judith, made it rough. But perhaps the biggest hurdle was the comeback of the striped bass, a predator of lobsters. This brought the industry on the Vineyard to a slow grind.
Since then, John says every year has improved, and with his trap limit of 450 per year and fewer lobsterman, he is able to make a living enjoying life on the water.
Other regulations have come in place in Massachusetts, such as increasing minimum size limits in the sea creature. Currently on the Vineyard a lobster must measure at least 3-3/8 inches from back of eye to before tail (the thorax).
And there is an oversize throwback: anything over 5 ½ inches or over 5 pounds must be returned to the water.
At around a pound a lobster is considered a juvenile and may be up to seven years old. This lobster will molt 25 times in its juvenile period. At 5 pounds you’re talking mature lobsters that are breeders. Lobstermen also must throwback “eggers,” females with eggs. The law requires that the lobsterman cut a V notch in the tail flippers before throwing an egger overboard. The V will eventually disappear through molting. Fisherman are supposed to re-notch a V before it disappears, to keep the breeder safe.
After seeing the changes happen over time in the lobster industry, John says he’s happy to comply with all the changing regulations, because that’s what keeps the industry alive.
John drops his traps south of Nomans and mostly goes lobstering by himself on Summer Dawn, his 38-foot wooden lobster boat. Sometimes his three daughters will join him for a day of work, sometimes his wife Susan joins him for a day on the water.
John sets his traps in late March through the first week in November. He calls lobstering a “glad business,” meaning, “glad to start and glad to finish.”
John’s family prefers lobster just steamed, nothing fancy, which tends to be a favorite and a summer tradition. Lobster has generated many high-end restaurants with fabulously expensive versions of already- shelled lobster, called Lazy Man’s Lobster. Lobster has a certain cachet.
Over the course of many years as a chef, I have discovered the diversity of lobster. As much as it feels like a fabulous summer tradition, having bright steamed lobster in Menemsha during sunset, I also like lobster in smaller doses, mixed into salads and dappled through a light summery pasta or inside hors d’oeuvres. I also like to grill lobsters whole. When I was the chef and owner of the Roadhouse restaurant in the early 90s, I had grilled lobster on the menu. Customers who insisted on only steamed lobster, eventually became converts to a lobster with a hint of lime and smoke.
Lobster meat is delicate and should be treated with care. If you are going to add it to a dish like risotto, undercook it the first time, so that when it is added and cooked again, the texture and flavor will hold up.
I worked at a restaurant in Los Angeles where we had seafood flown in every day from Gloucester, Mass., and we blanched the lobsters for several minutes in boiling water before plunging them into an ice bath. Later when they were ordered, served pan roasted, they finished cooking and came out perfect. With lobsters, timing is everything.