LOBSTER FISHING OUT OF SCITUATE

APRIL - May

I was hired as Doug Sibbald’s (pronounced “sibble”) sternman late April with zero experience on a commercial fishing vessel.

”A sternman, also known as an aftsman or deck-hand does not actual hold a lobster license, but assists a lobsterman in the harvesting of lobster. He or she will bait, empty, stack and drop traps. They do not pilot the boat” (definition courtesy of The University of Maine Lobster Institute).

Doug and I made a gentleman’s agreement that we’d give it four weeks; if it didn’t work out one way or another, then we’d simply part ways. Doug’s tough, smart, and has been on the water his whole life. We’re the same age and have lots of things in common, and as many things that aren’t. Starting pay is scarcely what I’m accustomed to. The work is physically demanding, and there’s zero screwing around tolerated. There has been so much to learn during this month of May that I don’t quite know where to begin. I’ve done lots of sailing on 40 ft. sailboats up and down the coast of New England, and am pretty good at general seamanship. Working on a commercial boat like Doug’s is radically different. We set out every morning by 6:30 and fish until about 3:30 in the afternoon before heading to Scituate Harbor to dispense of our catch. As of mid-May we had 720 traps (36 trawls) in the water, from 3 to 6 miles out. By early June we’ll have set his remaining 80 traps; 800 is the limit.
— Bob's notes
Pamela B's fishing ground is outside of the blue icon, which happens to be Pamala-B's position from a navigation app I have on my iPhone.

Pamela B's fishing ground is outside of the blue icon, which happens to be Pamala-B's position from a navigation app I have on my iPhone.

The "Ramp" is the private dock Lucian Rousseau Memorial Landing, where the Pamela-B and several other fishing vessels & skiffs tie up. The "Town Pier" is where bait is hoisted down to the boat in large barrels, and lobsters are hoisted up in large box-containers. The position of the boat (the blue icon) is at the fuel dock. The Pamela B holds 500 gallons of diesel.

The "Ramp" is the private dock Lucian Rousseau Memorial Landing, where the Pamela-B and several other fishing vessels & skiffs tie up. The "Town Pier" is where bait is hoisted down to the boat in large barrels, and lobsters are hoisted up in large box-containers. The position of the boat (the blue icon) is at the fuel dock. The Pamela B holds 500 gallons of diesel.

Lucian Memorial.jpg
skiffa.jpg
Hauling the traps ...

Hauling the traps ...

... and loading them onto the truck

... and loading them onto the truck

April 29: Made 2 runs from the yard stacking 40 traps onto Doug’s truck. Once at the dock, my job was to haul the traps (stacked 4-high per haul) from Doug’s truck down a ramp, and onto Pamela-B’s deck (20 trips to the dock). Doug then stacks them bow-to-stern, after they’d been baited by me. He generally sets them up 3-high x 4-wide x 6.5 deep. He also has to manage the almost 200 yards of rope so that when the traps are set (dropped), the rope pays-out safely. We set the 80 later in the day. I made some mistakes and got a heaping-helping of Doug’s “love”. It’s all good; I’m here to learn.
April 30: Cold, nasty rain all day. Dropped another 80 ... fewer mistakes. Overall, a much better day that yesterday. There’s a tight knit group of captain’s, sternmen, and boats at the dock, so I keep my head down and work hard. Went to New England Marine in Marshfield after work to get a 12-pack of fishing gloves and a more comfortable pair of boots (the boots I showed up to work with I had found at the town dump. Good enough boots, but 2 sizes too big).
May 1: Weather a bit better than yesterday. but still chilly. Feeling a little more confident with the drill, which has to be so absolutely precise down to the most simple tasks. For lunch sandwiches I started making 10 sandwiches at a time and then freeze, pulling one from the freezer each day we go out fishing. We also keep PBJ and bread on the boat as back-up.
May 2: sunny and 88* today. Doug got the gear set set up to begin hauling today, So I’m starting from square-1 again. I call this a practice-run, but this day was much more precise and intense than setting the traps. We pulled 80 traps which yielded 36 lobsters.
May 3: The routine is slowly coming together. Stacked and dropped 80, hauled zero.
— Bob's notes
Doug in  Pamela B's  engine compartment ...

Doug in Pamela B's engine compartment ...

... making final pre-load preparations.

... making final pre-load preparations.

Herring bait (that's Chucky, who sells the bait to fishermen).

Herring bait (that's Chucky, who sells the bait to fishermen).

Redfish bait.

Redfish bait.

May 4: Set 80 traps in rain and thick fog. So foggy I couldn’t see much beyond 20 yards. On radar, Doug id’d a vessel about a mile to the east of us, tracking in our direction. Turned out to be another fishing boat; Doug spotted it coming out of the fog and steered hard-right to give it way. Quiet day. Doug is drilling discipline in to me. Boot camp/tough love. Paying off.
May 8: Set 60 traps and pulled 200, yielding 138 lobsters. Pea soup.
May 9: Nicer day weather wise. Set 40, pulled 180, yielding 163 lobsters. Good day for me from a “getting it” standpoint, but still lots to learn. Doug’s frustrated with my inability to tie a clove hitch his way (doubling up the rope), and that I’m a lefty. Lefty’s wrap hitches in the opposite direction of righty’s.
— Bob's notes
Salmon heads (foreground) & herring (background).

Salmon heads (foreground) & herring (background).

Traps and bait, before setting out.

Traps and bait, before setting out.

Miles of rope. It looks like a messy pile, but Doug set's it up in a very precise way so that when the 20-trap trawls are "set" the ropes feed out very orderly and safely.

Miles of rope. It looks like a messy pile, but Doug set's it up in a very precise way so that when the 20-trap trawls are "set" the ropes feed out very orderly and safely.

The  sternman  (my job) remains at the stern of the boat to guide the trawls into the water as we slowly motor ahead. On this particular day we set 4 trawls, or 80 traps.

The sternman (my job) remains at the stern of the boat to guide the trawls into the water as we slowly motor ahead. On this particular day we set 4 trawls, or 80 traps.

May 14: Hauled 280 traps,which yielded 208 keepers. Good day all around. I did drop one of the two banders into the lobster tank, but otherwise think I’m getting quicker at banding. Of all the tasks, banding was one of my least favorite, but now that I’ve got it down it’s no longer a struggle. Today we had the commercial containers we fill with lobster hauled at the pier by a huge electronic winch and boom. Very easy compared with how we’ve done it thus far (me dragging the containers UP the ramp from the dock. When filled, each container weighs about 100 pounds. At low-tide it can be like dragging them up a small but steep mountain.
— Bob's notes
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We see all kinds of traffic outside, from container ships and navy ships, to tug boats pulliong barges

May 15: Morning started out rough. Fairly large swells and winds at 15 knots. At one point the bait tipped over spilling the bait all over the deck. We were hauling a trawl at the time, and to add to the calamity we snared a rouge lobster pot, line and buoy. It was tense, and Doug made it clear that he was not happy at all. The first two trawls yielded very little. Part of that was my fault for not properly “zipping” up the bait bags properly. There was some cursing and yelling. I don’t take these moments personal although it does rattle me, and what momentum I had falters.

After those first two trawls all was well. The wind subsided by noon and the sun came outthe final eight trawls were “cake” versus the first two. I have tons of respect for Doug, a hard working, real person.

May 17: YOU’RE FIRED!! We hauled 11 trawls, but the lobster count was way off from more recent days. By the end of the day Doug was in a pretty gnarly mood so I said to him “ ... your mood is really getting under my skin”. He fired back, and said “you’re getting under my skin, too. I’m gonna write you your last pay check when we get in! I said “okay” and continued my work.

I was rehired two minutes later :)
— Bob's notes

 

                              The Lobster Trap

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Whether the lobster trap is traditional wood or modern wire, the design is basically the same with possible variations in the number of chambers and doors. Lobster traps usually have two main inner compartments, accessed through doors. The door to the lobster trap is specifically designed to be a one-way entrance. Round in shape on the exterior wall of the trap, the door enters a funnel, called a head, made of webbing that narrows towards the interior. Attracted by the smell of bait inside the trap, the lobster cautiously enters the door and travels through the funnel. The first “room” the lobster enters is the “kitchen” where lobster-enticing bait is hung. Bait may be fresh or salted fish on a line or tied in a hanging bag. After the lobster enters the kitchen, it grabs a piece of bait with its claw and begins maneuvering towards an exit. It is difficult to go out the way it entered due to the design of the funnel. As the lobster continues seeking an exit, it passes through another funnel leading to the “parlor” or “bedroom” in the rear of the trap. Here, the larger lobsters become trapped. Some lobster traps have more than one kitchen and parlor. All have a large latched door at the top of the trap so the lobstermen can access the interior to bait the kitchen and remove the lobsters. The lobster traps are carried out to sea on lobster fishing boats, lowered to the seafloor by ropes attached to floating buoys that mark the position of the traps for later retrieval.


Specifically designed to allow the release of undersized lobsters, the parlor has at least one small exit hole. Required by lobster fishing regulations, the small exit hole allows young lobsters to leave the trap, mature and mate, thus ensuring the continuation of lobster fishing. Another safety feature incorporated into the traps is the “ghost panel.” This is a biodegradable section that will deteriorate over time, allowing lobsters caught in lost traps a means of escape. Long before sustainability became a fashionable trend, lobster traps were designed to promote the sustainable harvesting of this gourmet seafood treat.
— Google Search
Note the open stern.

Note the open stern.

Passing the old Scituate lighthouse as we motor out.

Passing the old Scituate lighthouse as we motor out.

Our first very small catch of the season, early May: pulled 60 traps which yielded 46 pounds. That will change, as it's still "pre-season". By late May we were pulling 300 traps a day, yielding as much as 260+ pounds.

Our first very small catch of the season, early May: pulled 60 traps which yielded 46 pounds. That will change, as it's still "pre-season". By late May we were pulling 300 traps a day, yielding as much as 260+ pounds.

By regulations, his fellow was to big so we had to toss him back.

By regulations, his fellow was to big so we had to toss him back.

The winch apparatus for hauling bait and the lobster catch on-and-off the  Patricia B .

The winch apparatus for hauling bait and the lobster catch on-and-off the Patricia B.

Hoisting a catch onto the pier. That's Sam (" The Chinaman" ), Doug's sole customer. Sam has a lobster pound in Hingham where he holds his quarry for distribution to Boston, New York City, and the Far East.

Hoisting a catch onto the pier. That's Sam ("The Chinaman"), Doug's sole customer. Sam has a lobster pound in Hingham where he holds his quarry for distribution to Boston, New York City, and the Far East.

A view of the Town Pier. It's from here that barrels of bait are lowered-down to the Pamela B at around 6:30 in the morning, and containers of lobsters are winched-up to Doug's buyer at around 3:30 in the afternoon.

A view of the Town Pier. It's from here that barrels of bait are lowered-down to the Pamela B at around 6:30 in the morning, and containers of lobsters are winched-up to Doug's buyer at around 3:30 in the afternoon.

Sunrise.

Sunrise.

Captain's log. This is where Doug posts the exact coordinates where each trawl is dropped so that when it's time to harvest he knows precisely where to go, plus other details.

Captain's log. This is where Doug posts the exact coordinates where each trawl is dropped so that when it's time to harvest he knows precisely where to go, plus other details.