New leaders in Maine’s lobster fishery: Herman Coombs, Searsport

First published in Landings, July, 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.

Herman Coombs has been fishing for most of his 39 years. While he caught the bug from a family member, it wasn’t his father. “It was my cousin—but we called him uncle—Alden Leeman,” said Coombs. He began fishing with Leeman as a boy: dragging, swordfishing, purse-seining for pogies, and eventually lobstering. When he was older, Leeman had a heart condition and wore a defibrillator he called his “Dick Cheney.”

Orrs Island lobsterman Herman Coombs. Photos by M. Coombs.
Orrs Island lobsterman Herman Coombs. Photos by M. Coombs.

“I got it from him,” Coombs said, referring to his sense of humor and his love of fishing.

A native of Orrs Island, Coombs lives in the house he grew up in with his wife, Monique, son Riley, 6, and daughter Jocelyne, 10. “We bought it from my mom and dad three years ago” when his dad developed lung cancer. His dad, who had owned a construction company, passed away a year later.

Coombs fishes year-round—Zone F inshore and Area 1 offshore—from his boat, Jocelyne K, a 45-foot Young Brothers boat, built in Corea in 1982 of solid fiberglass. “I love the boat,” said Coombs. He bought it ten years ago from a fisherman in Point Judith, Rhode Island, and has since become good friends with the son of the original owner.

“I took a bunch of pictures of the iced-over windows of the boat and posted them on Facebook,” explained Coombs. “He saw them and got in touch.” The families got together in Maine last summer. The son, who owns and operates a 65-foot offshore lobster boat out of Point Judith, brought along an album of pictures of the boat being built.

Last year, Coombs was one of the young lobstermen who attended the Lobster Leadership Institute organized by the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance, the sister organization of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Before traveling to Prince Edward Island to meet with lobstermen there, the Institute’s participants began with two days of presentations on lobster science, management, and economics. “We learned a lot about the science part of what goes on from Carl Wilson [director of the Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Marine Science],” Coombs said. “We know we go catch them, but we don’t know what happens to them afterward. I really enjoyed it.”

Coombs bought his boat from a Pt. Judith, R.I. fisherman.
Coombs bought his boat from a Pt. Judith, R.I. fisherman.

The lobstermen also learned about the expanding international markets for Maine lobster. “We sell to Canada in the summer to supply their [processing plants]. It gave me the right idea about what goes on to get lobster to the people who want to buy them,” said Coombs. “China is coming into the mix now. They want lots of lobster. We always say the dealers make a lot of money, but the dealer has to make a certain amount or you don’t have anyone to sell to.” He sells his lobsters to an individual dealer on Orrs Island. “If you have an open, honest relationship with the person you sell to, you get the price you want,” he noted.

In the year since he attended the Lobster Leadership Institute, Coombs hasn’t changed much in the way he goes lobstering. “But it gave me a different perspective,” he said. “I might take an extra day off instead of going out and spending fuel money to pick up only a few lobsters. I’ll let the traps soak a bit longer and save on bait and fuel. I’ll be a little more mindful. As I get a little older, I don’t want to work that hard.”

When Coombs attended the Leadership Institute, he wasn’t a member of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. But he is now. “I wanted to join for multiple years, because I always forget [when the annual membership form arrives]. I went to the [Fishermen’s] Forum just to pay my MLA membership. Now I’m signed up for three years!”

Coombs is featured on the Maine Office of Tourism website, as a “Maine Insider,” where he shares his love of Maine and lobstering with the rest of the world. Lobstering gives Coombs the independence to take a day off for the kids when he needs to. “I know you’re never technically in control, because of nature and other factors. But it’s good to know you can work hard and benefit more.” Is he planning to do anything differently in the coming year? “Probably I won’t complain as much,” he laughed. More seriously, he is thinking about the best possible ways to increase his potential to make a profit this season.

While he doesn’t take long vacations, Coombs does enter fishing tournaments. “Really, I call it ‘wishing.’ You couldn’t call it fishing,” he said. He entered a couple of tournaments last year, in Casco Bay and Bailey Island, and he’ll do it again this year. “We fire the boat up some Sunday afternoons, take the two kids out,” he added. “It’s still boat time, but it’s different time.”

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