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Thoughts from Cape Porpoise

By Joshua Bodwell

CAPE PORPOISE — Since it was first incorporated in 1653, Cape Porpoise has been a fishing village.

In those days, huge schooners fished the Maine coast, selling their catch at the Portland and Boston markets. Soon after the turn of the century, the wooden schooners disappeared into a bygone era. The predominant catch at the Cape Porpoise Pier these days lobster (Homarus americanus), and “local color” can be seen in the brightly painted buoys, each one differentiating the traps of the many fishers.

In Cape Porpoise Harbor, reaping a living from the often fickle Atlantic remains a hard but realistic way of life. Today, the Maine lobster industry grosses well over $200 million annually, and employs tens of thousands of people.

More than 35 full-time lobstermen call Cape Porpoise Harbor home. In the summer months, with part-time fisherman, that numbers swells to around 50. Cape Porpoise Harbor is one of the last harbors in Maine to be designated a commercial harbor.

The harbor comes alive each morning by 4:30 with the lobster boats’ big diesel engines cranking up and echoing across the water, down the narrow streets. Most crews won’t get home till one in the afternoon. On the short days of the winter months, lobstering work can take you from dawn to dusk.

The lobstermen of Cape Porpoise Harbor are held by state limits to a maximum of 800 traps each. The entire coast of Maine is broken into zones, some more restrictive than others; trap limits Down East can tighten to as few as 400 per lobsterman. Cape Porpoise lobstermen find themselves smack in the middle of Zone G, which stretches from Kittery to Scarborough.

Pulling a couple hundred traps a day, it takes local lobstermen around four days to “bait up,” (pull and re-bait all of their traps) if they’re fishing their 800 trap limit.

Since the late ‘70s, the traditional round-top, wooden lobster pots have given way to the longer lasting rectangular wire traps. The most popular wire traps today average 4-feet in length. One end of the trap has the famous funnel-shaped entrance that allows the lobster to back itself in. Known as “The Kitchen,” this end is where the lobsterman crams his bait; herring is the most common bait used today, but you see just about anything used, including mackerel, skates, and flounder racks.

When the lobster has had its fill, it moves on through another funnel and into the back end of the trap, known as “The Parlour.” The Lobster cannot escape from here. The parlour, however, is equipped with two escape vents. The doors on these vents are attached with untreated rings that will rust quickly and fall off. This measure ensures that if a trap snaps its line in a storm and is lost, the lobsters will eventually escape.

Lobster traps are routinely lost, and hate it when the wind really blows. Most lobstermen use the formula that for every foot of wave action on the surface of the water, there is roughly five feet of action below the surface. In rough weather, traps get picked up, dragged and smashed along the ocean’s floor. Wire traps can come up looking like a collapsed accordion. Many local lobstermen throw their traps, which are weighted with bricks, out in “strings,” clusters of 10 or 15 traps with one buoy to one trap. The average depth for a trap is 30 to 35 feet.

Another common technique is placing traps in trawls of 15 or 20. A trawl is a line of traps tied together with one buoy making the start, another marking the end.

Traps can be placed so tight to shore that those tending out of skiffs only worry that the traps will be covered at low-tide. In the winter, lobsters run deeper, out into water as deep as 70-plus fathoms (over 400 feet.) During those cold months, the fleet travels out 10 to 12 miles to tend their pots.

With summer comes more sunlight, longer days and the beginning of what locals refer to as the days of “Good Fishing.” This stretch lasts from late summer to January.

Those arriving late in the morning to the Cape Porpoise Pier these days are likely to miss the men. There will only be the many beaten skiffs and punts swaying in the water, hanging from the lobster boats’ moorings.

Joshua Bodwell is a reporter for the York County Coast Star.