New recruit a steady character

First published in the MLA newsletter, July,  2010.

“I’ve never wanted to do something else.”

Micah Philbrook. Photo by MLA.

Micah Philbrook smiles quietly. The 25-year-old Owls Head lobsterman leans down to pet the large orange cat at his feet. Outside his neat two-story home at the end of a dirt road sits Forgiven, his 40-foot lobster boat. Micah is doing his spring maintenance work, the sanding, painting and system overhaul necessary before he begins the summer season.

Micah is a tall, slight man with wire-rim glasses. A fellow Owls Head lobsterman commented, “he’s a steady character. He doesn’t get upset and you can count on him anytime.”

Micah began his lobstering career, like many Maine fishermen, as a child fishing with his father, Alan ‘Lupie’ Philbrook, and his uncle. “I’ve done this since I was a kid,” Micah says, “as far back as I can remember.” When he was in fifth grade, he and his cousin bought a 19-foot boat with loans from their parents and began setting their own traps. “We paid our fathers back by the end of the first summer,” he notes.

Micah and his sternman, Brendan Newell, fish offshore in the winter in waters south-southwest of Matinicus Rock. Winter lobster fishing means long hours steaming in frigid weather but Micah says it’s worth it. “When the lobsters dry up in Penobscot Bay you can chase them further out. It’s a huge ocean out there and you can go just about anywhere,” he explains.

As the inshore waters in Penobscot Bay have become more densely populated with lobstermen and lobster traps, tangled gear is a daily annoyance for most lobstermen. Being out in federal waters allows him a little more freedom. “You might get a little gear conflict with other lobstermen around the three-mile line but otherwise it’s O.K. I haven’t had any trouble with shrimpers or trawlers out there,” he says.

While year-round lobstering is Micah’s primary employment, he has turned his hand to other work as well. He is one of the Penobscot Bay Pilots Association captains, delivering pilots to and from the large ships that travel into and out of Penobscot Bay. “I started with them five or six years ago as a deckhand,” he says. “Then they asked me if I wanted to run the boat. I do that part-time.”

Micah acknowledges that he, like many younger lobstermen, is not as involved in the politics of Maine’s lobster industry as are some other, older fishermen. “I know, I don’t go to the Zone D meetings myself. But I think it could be because the older generation has seen major changes from the old days, changes in regulations and rules and such. People my age, we’re used to all the regulations. I hate them, but I’m used to them,” he says with a shake of his head.

Given where he fishes in the winter, it’s understandable that the sinking rope regulations are one rule that bothers him. He sets in rocky bottom and may not be able to return to his traps for many days during bad winter weather. “The sinking rope frays really fast and it’s really expensive. So after a long set I know I’m going to lose traps,” he says. “Two winters ago I lost one hundred traps. This past winter I lost maybe 30 to 40. Plus there’s the cost of the rope. It gets expensive.” Micah builds his own traps at his home. “I am frustrated that the government would put the wellbeing of the whales above that of the lobstermen particularly when it’s tough now economically,” he adds.

Though still a young man, Micah has seen certain changes during his lobstering career. “I don’t think as many people are coming into it now compared to the boom during the 1990s. Some are dropping out because the price is just no good,” he says.

He finds himself being even more careful with his expenses in the face of depressed prices. “I’m definitely more careful about what I spend now,” he says. He gets his bait – generally herring, flat fish racks – from local sources. Come winter he switches to redfish for his offshore traps.

At age 25, Micah feels confident that he will remain in lobstering for the rest of his life. “I might slow down a bit when I get to fifty or sixty, you know. I don’t really see ever stopping,” he says as he steps back to the boat.