Adopt-a-Boat fisherman Capt. Mattie Thomson and eleven other Monhegan lobstermen start their winter fishing season
Trap Day on Monhegan Island as lobstermen
continue a century old
traditional management system
Portland Press Herald
December 5, 2004
By Seth Harkness
originally published at:
MONHEGAN -The pace of life on this island quickly ratchets down after summer's frenzy. Ferry service cuts back to three trips a week, the town water is shut off and many windows are boarded up against winter gales to come. The scores of painters who flock here in warmer months have almost all departed. Had they remained, they could capture the island with a narrow palette: the yellow of sere grass, the grays of granite and weathered shingles, the greens of spruce and a cold sea.
But scattered lights still shine at night in the village, and the departure of visitors makes the outlines of a year-round community more visible. Never is this community more active than on Trap Day, the 100-year-old ritual in early December that is the start of Monhegan's winter lobster fishery.
Trap Day is scheduled for the official opening of the island's lobster season on Dec. 1, but more often than not must be postponed because of rough weather. This year it took place in a snowstorm on Friday, after a southerly gale kept the island's dozen lobstermen at their moorings for two days.
On Trap Day, each of Monhegan's lobstermen sets his 600 traps within the island's exclusive fishing waters, a circle with the island at its center and a radius of two miles. It is a day's work that no one could accomplish alone, and scores of residents and visitors pitch in to help the fishermen haul thousands of traps down to the town wharf and load them onto the boats.
The complicated and almost chaotic task is governed by many traditions that both sustain and reflect the group of about 60 residents who live here year-round. First among these is the fishermen's self-imposed restriction that no one can set their traps until everyone is ready to do so.
Monhegan lobstermen, the only ones in the state with a limited season, make their biggest hauls in the first few weeks when they fish waters that have gone untouched since June. Other aspects of Trap Day have changed with time, but the idea that everyone should share in this peak fishing has not, said Steve Rollins, a Monhegan native and retired merchant mariner who returned to the island to spend December in the stern of a lobster boat.
'The rules still apply,' he said. 'Make sure everyone is healthy. Make sure all the boats are in running order. Give everybody an equal chance at the fishing grounds.'
'GOING EVERY WHICH WAY'
Preparations for Trap Day begin several days prior to Dec. 1. By the time the Laura B. made an unscheduled ferry run to Monhegan from Port Clyde last Tuesday morning, on Nov. 30, the island wharf was already stacked high with lobster traps. All day and into the evening, pickup trucks - the only automobiles allowed on Monhegan's unpaved roads - arrived with more traps that crews piled on either side of the wharf until the dock's center lane became a canyon between 15-foot high stacks.
Each fisherman had assembled a crew of about five to help with this work, drawing on a network of friends and family from on and off the island.
Many were summer workers like Sue Jenkins, a baker at the Monhegan House, who said she wanted to see the island during its quiet season. Jenkins said she was impressed with how all the motion had a purpose.
'It's wonderful,' she said. 'Everybody is going every which way, but it works.'
Others, like Bob Barrett, had visited Monhegan for many summers and befriended a local lobsterman. Barrett, who once fished for lobsters in Massachusetts, took a vacation from his job with a data storage company in downtown Boston to sling heavy traps and experience a side of the island that few summer visitors ever do.
'I'm a frustrated lobsterman. This is like therapy,' he said.
Later in the day, encouraged by calm conditions, the island's fishermen took turns tying up to the small wharf and loading their boats with traps. From a large house overlooking the harbor, 93-year-old Rita White, Monhegan's oldest resident, occasionally peeked out her door to observe the bustling wharf. A visiting doctor, the owner of the Monhegan House and a massage therapist who works on Monhegan in the summer were among those lugging wire traps and bait below.
'We're all set to go. Everything just hangs on the weather now,' said Don Cundy, who at age 68 was preparing for his 53rd Trap Day as he stacked traps on the deck of his 36-foot wooden boat.
But the decision wouldn't be final until the 12 captains gathered later in the evening on the upper floor of Sherm Stanley's fish house, as they have done for more than 50 years. In a meeting closed to family and sternmen, the fishermen would seek a consensus on whether to hold Trap Day on Dec. 1. They plan their day around the weather and have occasionally set traps beneath a full moon to beat a storm.
But if any of the captains have serious misgivings about the weather or cannot fish for some other reason, tradition requires them all to wait.
'They waited for me for 18 days one time when I put an ax in my ankle,' Cundy said of a Trap Day 40 years ago. That December was the longest the fishermen had ever delayed their season.
A SYSTEM TO BENEFIT ALL
Monhegan's unique fishing season serves to preserve the island's year-round community as much as lobsters. In exchange for fishing in the finger-freezing winter months, the fishermen - who build houses, run inns and stores and do other jobs in summer - ensure themselves work at a time when work is scarce. They also catch a run of hardshell lobsters that bring a better price than summer shedders - a tradeoff most say does not quite offset their limited fishing days during the stormy winter months.
On balance, though, one fisherman said the system continues because it is in the best interest of the island.
'I'd make more money if I could fish year-round here, and I'd have an easier life,' said Doug Boynton, captain of the Alice B. 'But if we didn't fish here in the winter, the population would be cut in half and there'd barely be a community.'
The interests of the group prevailed again on Tuesday night when the captains decided to delay their decision and meet again at 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday because of strong winds forecast for morning. Boynton said there had been some difference of opinion, with the captains of the larger boats inclined to go and those with smaller boats preferring to wait. In the end, though, the fishermen reached a consensus to stay.
'We avoid votes at all cost,' he said.
By early Wednesday, the beginnings of a southern gale were straining through the spruce trees and surf was pounding the seaward side of the island. The fishermen again decided to remain at their moorings and were probably glad they did when later in the day big seas barreled into the harbor and the Laura B. dipped her rails on a rolling ride back to Port Clyde.
A couple of years ago, the islanders held a two-day soccer game while waiting for the wind to settle before Trap Day. This year, the rain kept most people indoors.
Having waited six months to go fishing, several fishermen said they could wait another day or two, though not without a hint of impatience. From her home above the harbor, the island's oldest resident said she, too, was ready for the boats to go out and for another Trap Day tradition - the lobster she anticipated one of the fishermen would bring to her door.
'I don't ask,' White said. 'They just bring one up to me.'