New Recruit: A life that’s tough, but beautiful

First published in Landings, April, 2013.

Beals Island lobsterman Jeff Libby is a pretty relaxed individual. Today at Billings Diesel and Marine in Stonington, he’s covered in grease and dirt, yet he’s quick to offer a joke and a ready smile. Jeff’s 48- foot Dixon is in the shop for a major overhaul. “When I brought the boat [F/V Autumn Gale] down here the guys asked me ‘did anything work?’” he laughs, looking at the parts and pieces scattered about the deck. Prior to bringing the boat from Beals Island down to Stonington a month ago, Jeff had been adding five gallons of oil to the engine a day. When she leaves to head home, Jeff’s boat will have a rebuilt generator, a new pump system, engine overhaul, new wheelhouse windows and a fresh coat of paint.

Beals Island lobsterman Jeff Libby. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

Beals Island lobsterman Jeff Libby. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

Jeff started lobstering on his own as a teenager, after fishing with his father from the age of six. “Ever since I was a little kid, I loved fishing,” he said, a beaming smile lighting up his face. He recalled times as a child when his father would head out to fish offshore and would sneak away in the early morning without waking Jeff. “I’d call him once I woke up and found he was gone. I’d be so mad, but I know he didn’t want me out there, a young kid being seasick all day,” he said. Seasickness wasn’t just a problem offshore. “Up until about ten years ago I was seasick every single day, even when it was flat calm,” Jeff admitted.

From his first 18-foot Eastporter, Jeff has steadily moved up the ranks in boats, buying his grandfather’s 33-foot Young Brothers boat, then a 41-foot Libby, and most recently the Autumn Gale, from which he fishes year-round. Although many lobstermen reported huge catches last year, Jeff said he didn’t make out as well as he had hoped. “I think it was because I don’t fish inside the three-mile line at all. The lobsters were inside while I was outside. They stayed in the bay [Western Bay],” he said.

Jeff has some decided opinions about the low price paid to Maine lobstermen for their catch in recent years. “A lot of people make all their money in the summer time but that’s the worst time to land lobsters,” the 27-year-old lobsterman explained. “It’s junk lobsters and that’s half the battle.”

He isn’t keen on many of the ideas that have been kicked around this year to control lobster landings, such as a changed gauge size or limited fishing days. Instead, he favors taking better care of the lobsters. “The product has changed, it’s shifted, and that’s really messed with us. We need to think differently about what we’re doing, we need to pay attention to the handling,” Jeff said. “When I see my sternmen firing lobsters around, I tell them we have to handle those lobsters like eggs.” Everyone needs to be more careful, including the wharf workers and truckers. “The volume has gone up and the quality has gone down. We’re working so fast, we can’t put broken lobsters and soft lobsters in the market,” Jeff emphasized.

Libby’s Autumn Gale getting its spring refit at Billings Diesel in Stonington. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

Libby’s Autumn Gale getting its spring refit at Billings Diesel in Stonington. Photo by Annie Tselikis.

When Jeff graduated from high school in 2004, he and a friend agreed to attend all the meetings on the lobster industry that they could find. After a year or so, they burnt out. “It gets so frustrating,” Jeff said. “I think the state just holds those meetings because they have to, not because they really want to listen to you. It’s like speaking into a deaf ear.” He admitted that working with other lobstermen isn’t that easy either. In a close-knit community, instituting changes of any sort often meets with fierce resistance. As Jeff put it, “lobstermen are so bull-headed.”

When he’s not lobstering, Jeff finds time to go hunting and occasionally, lake fishing. He is engaged to be married to Erin Church, a veterinarian, this September. He hopes that the 2013 lobstering season is better than last year but overall, he feels content with his situation. “I could never get out of bed in the morning and be as excited to do something different,” Jeff said. “Sometimes at 3 or 4 a.m., it’s tough. It’s always early, but you get out there and you’re watching the sun rise. Even when it’s rough it’s beautiful out there.”