The home of the perfect lobster
With a practiced motion, lobster fisherman Mark Ring catches the buoy with his long gaff. He then pulls on the rope in the hydraulic winch that is slowly raising the first lobster trap. Ring leans over the railing and with a quick jerk, the trap is onboard the boat.
“It’s a female. You can see the eggs and how broad across the back she is”, Ring says, pointing to the tail of the first lobster he pulls out. “We’re not allowed to land egg-bearing females – they have to be given a chance to hatch them first.”
He notches a tiny V in the tail fin so that other fishermen can easily see that it’s a female, even when she isn’t bearing eggs, and tosses the lobster back over the railing. The V notch will stay there for two or three years.
Ring and his nephew are fishing close to land today. It’s early summer and the lobsters have moved into the shallower, warmer water in Gloucester harbor to molt and lay eggs. The stony sea floor here also provides good protection against predator fish.
“Our traps are pretty close to the shore this time of year, often within 1.5km, Ring says. “In the fall, the lobsters go deeper and deeper until Christmas time when they’re in water that is 60 to 90m deep, which could be 10 to 11 km off the coast.”
Ring measures the lobsters in the trap. The smallest and largest are thrown back into the sea. According to regulations, only lobsters with a body length of 3¼ to 5 inches (ca 8.25–12.7cm) can be sold, so most are thrown back overboard.
“It’s a slow day today”, Ring says. “The best catches are usually in October-November, when the lobsters have fattened up for the winter. The lobster traps can be absolutely packed then.”
Ring, however, is not prepared to reveal his record catch. “It’s our secret”, he says laughing. “No fisherman reveals his best catch.”
Ring has spent almost 45 years fishing for lobsters. With a father who owned a marina and two fishing uncles, he has fishing in his blood. But strangely, it was his Polish neighbors who taught him the trade secrets and took him on his first fishing trips. Ring named his fishing boat after those neighbors: Stanley Thomas.
The fishing town of Gloucester on Cape Ann in Massachusetts has always been a regional hub for lobster fishing. It is the oldest active harbor in the US and, so they claim, the place where lobsters were first fished in America. The fishing industry suffered during the recession years of the 1980s and 90s due, in part, to tougher regulations, but Ring is optimistic about the future.
“The fishing industry means a lot for the city even today, and is still a driving force in the economy”, he says. “The fishing is a little diminished right now, but we hope it will return to its former glory days. In the last few years, we’ve reached a low point with a lot of regulations, but it appears that the fish are coming back. The catch has been stable and hopefully it will stay like that for a few more years,” Ring says.
Despite setbacks and the tough work that is very physically demanding, the advantages of being a lobster fisherman still outweigh the disadvantages. Ring particularly values owning his own boat and being master of his own time.
“You don’t answer to different bosses and you can work as hard or as little as you want”, he says. “You see the fruits of your labor first hand every day, so it’s not a bad way of making a living.”
Having said that, when the rain is pouring down and storm winds blow, it’s not much fun setting out to sea in a small fishing boat, but that’s “something you learn to deal with” as Ring puts it. If the weather’s really bad, Ring and his nephew Matt stay onshore till the wind drops, but then they have an ever-present concern about the equipment.
In summer, when the traps are close to shore, storms can easily blow them onto the beaches and replacing a trap in the peak season is neither easy nor cheap.
“Traps are expensive, around 75 dollars each”, Ring says. “You want to replace them on your own terms, not because of Mother Nature. With the storms you are always more worried about the gear than yourself.”
A normal working day usually starts at 5.30am in the morning. At this time of year, Ring and his nephew are usually finished by 1 or 1:30pm, but the farther out the lobsters go, the longer their days are.
The pair have worked together for 17 years and it shows. They don’t exchange many words and both know what they need to do. Ring pulls up the traps while Matt takes charge of the lobsters – measuring them for size, putting rubber bands on their claws to prevent them from harming each other and placing new bait in the traps. They aim to empty half of the 800 traps they are allowed to have each day.
After an hour or so of fishing, the lobster traps are neatly arrayed on benches along the railing. The deck, however, looks like a viper’s nest of ropes. “People always think the traps will get all tangled up, but they don’t if you do it right. But you’d better stand here so you don’t get caught up in the ropes and go overboard”, Ring shouts.
The rubber pants and boots come off. The day is over and Ring steers Stanley Thomas towards the harbor to sell the day’s catch. Ring points out a few famous landmarks – an old paint factory and the schooner Adventurer that used to be a successful fishing boat. Like any old sea dog, he likes to tell a tale or two about the town. Many Hollywood movies have been filmed in Gloucester, including The Perfect Storm that was based on a true story about the fate of several Gloucester fishermen. The Crow’s Nest bar played a key role in the movie and George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and the rest of the cast were regulars there during filming.
“The movie has naturally given Gloucester a real tourism boost. Tourists come to the Crow’s Nest every day to ask about the movie. My boat was also used in the opening scene”, Ring says with pride, adding that his wife, who was onboard at the time, had to hide on the floor of the cabin to avoid being seen.
Ring moors the boat at the fish market. The lobsters that have been stored in water tanks are now hoisted up in plastic crates. Ring nimbly mounts the steep steps, green with seaweed. The same procedure will be repeated tomorrow, the day after tomorrow and every other day of the year.
“After a day’s work, we go home or to the local pub to meet our friends and other fishermen, but there’s always work to be done on the boat, or bait to line up. It’s never like in the movies. I wish it was.”
At Rockport, seven kilometers up the road from Gloucester, the day’s lobster catch is also being unloaded from local fishing boats. During the summer season, the town is a popular tourist destination thatattracts both lobster-loving locals and travelers from as far away as Asia.
John Porter runs the Roy Moore Lobster restaurant and sells fish here with his father. “Many tourists visit us and we get to know the ones that come back year after year”, Porter says. “Even people from Boston come here for lunch simply because the food is so fresh.”
Today, around 450kg of lobster is delivered straight from the fishing boat to the restaurant.
“It is normal for the season. Later in the summer, it can be up to twice this”, says Porter. “We catch more in winter, up to 2,000kg.”
Roy Moore Lobster has been run as a family company for 39 years. It is squeezed between stores, galleries and other restaurants in Bearskin Neck, a small peninsula jutting out into Rockport harbor. The simple menu at the restaurant is based on good, local produce. Lobsters are naturally the star attraction and the reason why so many people come here. The narrow hut, which is dominated by the large lobster tank and the oyster and fish, is a hive of activity. The walls are decorated with all manner of fishing tackle and artwork with sea motifs. Porter, aged 26 and who has pretty much grown up around lobsters, take orders for both live and cooked lobster.
“You won’t get them any better anywhere else”, says a customer who’s just bought a pair of live lobsters. The price today is 17 dollars each, or three for 35 dollars.
Freshly-cooked lobster is served on plain paper plates to guests at open-air tables as a fresh batch of lobsters is dropped into the large tank of boiling water behind the counter. After 12 to 14 minutes, the lobsters are cooked and Porter scoops them out. They’re boiled in seawater, nothing more. And always made to order to ensure that they’re as fresh as possible.
“In the summer, when we’re really busy, we cook up to 30 at a time”, says Porter. “By the time the next batch is ready, the first 30 will be gone.”
Porter takes a knife and with a couple of blows with the shaft, he’s cracked open the claws and then cuts into the tail. The lobster is ready to be served with a small bowl of melted butter.
“You’re throwing away the best part,” Porter says pointing to the lobster debris on our plates. “You must use the little fork for the knuckles. They’re hard to get but they have some of the sweetest meat you can get. Actually, there’s nothing you can’t eat in a lobster, you just have to explore it.”
Porter demonstrates how to get at the different parts. It looks so simple when, with a deft twist, he extracts the entire lobster tail in one go. This is his favorite part, along with the small legs. “Twist off and squeeze. You don’t get much, but it’s super sweet.”
It’s coming up to closing time and the final orders to be dispatched. Braely Jelmberg, one of Porter’s colleagues, fills a box with ice and lobster. “This is how we deliver lobsters to our customers”, he says and hops onto a skateboard. With the lobster box on his shoulder, he weaves between the tourists on Bearskin Neck and off into the distance.
Text: Anna-Lena Ahlberg
Published: October 27, 2016