New leaders in Maine’s lobster fishery: Travis Otis, Searsport

First published in Landings, June, 2015.

In this series we continue our profiles of some of the young men and women who took part in the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance’s inaugural Lobster Leadership Institute in May, 2014.

On this cool day in mid-May, Travis Otis is wearing a flannel shirt and jeans as he walks around the boat yard at Otis Enterprises in Searsport. The black flies had just begun to appear over the weekend so Otis is pleased by the cool weather. He gestures to his 36-foot Northern Bay lobster boat behind him and several other boats on cradles in the yard. “Time to get these in the water,” he says.

Travis Otis before his lobster boat, First Team, named in honor of his father’s unit in Vietnam. Photo by M. Waterman.

Travis Otis before his lobster boat, First Team, named in honor of his father’s unit in Vietnam. Photo by M. Waterman.

Otis, age 33, has a multi-faceted work life. During the winter he works with his father, Keith, building and repairing commercial and recreational boats. When spring comes around, he gets ready to set his traps in upper Penobscot Bay. He recently was hired as the assistant harbormaster for Searsport. And throughout the year, Otis, who is vice-president of the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association, is busy preparing for the upcoming season of lobster boat racing.

Taking part in the Lobster Leadership Institute last year seemed a natural thing to do, according to Otis. “It’s my industry. I build boats and fish myself,” he said. “I was interested to see what happens to the lobsters after I sell them.” He studied marine biology at Maine Maritime Academy and has a strong curiosity about what goes on in the bay. “I’m part of the ventless trap program [run by the Department of Marine Resources] this year. And I’m doing the samples for the closed area at the mouth of the river.” The DMR closed a small area of Penobscot Bay to lobster and crab fishing last year due to mercury contamination. Otis sets traps for the DMR which then tests the lobster and crab tissues to get a better understanding of contaminant levels throughout the year.

Building boats, fishing for lobsters, conducting scientific sampling: it all makes sense to Otis. He uses a boatbuilding analogy to explain. “Boatbuilding changes the way you look at things. You have to have a systems mentality. To get to something good you have to think about it sequentially, how to get to that end. Lobstering is like that too.” As a lobsterman in Searsport, Otis must carefully think ahead. There is no bait facility in town or a handy buyer for his lobsters. “I have to plan a day to get my bait, then bring it back, repack it and so forth. I have to hustle.” He fishes in-shore, about 20 miles down the bay, and sells his catch to Young’s in Belfast or Wyman Seafood in Stockton Springs.

Otis enjoyed lobstering with the fishermen on Prince Edward Island last spring as part of the Lobster Leadership Institute program. Like other participants, he learned that what he considered normal practice was not the case in Canada. “The guys on P.E.I. had a log book for each trap. They took a temperature reading. We went out one day and got 1,400 pounds. The next day we got nothing. Turns out the bottom temperature had dropped 5 degrees overnight,” Otis recalled. As a lobsterman who has to travel long distances to get his bait, he appreciated the Canadian lobstermen’s baiting habits. “They put one fish in a trap. And they catch their own bait. They move just ridiculously slowly compared to me,” he said. “Some guys, though will fish through all their traps in a day and then do it again!”

Getting consumers to recognize Maine lobster and and call for it by name also makes good sense to Otis. But he is cautious about how the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative will go about accomplishing that goal. “I think they have potential as long as they don’t mire themselves in the old way of thinking that there is one silver bullet that will solve all our problems,” he said. “We are sending our best lobster out into the world but I don’t think we’ve used our domestic markets as well as we can. You can ship new-shell lobster successfully. We just have to treat them much better.”

Lobstering in the Otis family is not just for the men. Otis mentions proudly that his eldest niece just got her license at age 9. “I gave her ten traps that she’s going to re-rig. So next thing she says to me, ‘When are you going to build me a boat?’ It’s the heritage, it’s what we have here,” Otis said.

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Travis Otis has been involved in the Maine Lobster Boat Racing Association since 2001. Currently he is vice-president of the association and the reigning champion in Diesel Class H. His perspective toward lobster boat racing is a mix of traditional and more contemporary views. “People ask me ‘What’s the big deal about lobster boat racing?’ I say it’s like putting NASCAR and a tractor pull together at a family reunion. It’s where the elite and the normal boats gather,” Otis said.

Some people feel that the flavor of lobster boat racing in the state changed sharply in recent decades as more high-powered boats joined the circuit. Boats with enormous engines or those that appear to have been designed for racing, not lobstering, now compete with working lobster boats. “The question is, are we racing lobster licenses or lobster boats?” Otis said. “It’s complicated. For instance, my first boat, Easy Money, I built it and fished it. Then someone else bought it and didn’t fish. Now someone owns it who has just five traps. So what is that boat?”

Sometimes those big boats with big engines have mishaps. Many remember the race in 2001 when Wild Wild West flipped during a choppy race off Searsport. Boat owners do all sorts of things to make their boats go faster, from the commonsense tactic of cleaning the boat hull of barnacles, to tinkering with the fuel mix to get more horsepower.

Otis and his father Keith are proud of the modifications they have made to his lobster boat, First Team. Otis maintains that during the lobster races participants can get “very aggressive,” but that afterwards people remain friendly. “You are mostly in it for the bragging rights,” he said.

This year Searsport returns to the racing circuit after renovations to the town dock were completed. “I think this year there will be a lot more local participants,” Otis said. “The younger guys may come in because they had a good year last year.” In past years when fuel prices were low, lobstermen from far-flung harbors would go to races throughout the coast. When fuel prices jumped during the 2000s, many chose to stay put or just participate in the races in their area. “Places like Winter Harbor, they always have large local participation from all the harbors around there, plus they have good prizes,” Otis said. “And Stonington, too, because they’re an all commercial fleet.”