Traditions Under Siege in Maine Lobster Fishery

Maine is home to more than 4,800 licensed lobstermen operating along the coast. Those lobstermen represent fishing traditions that go back more than one hundred years. Within the small towns that dot the Maine coast, men and women head to sea each day as their parents and grandparents once did, using their hard-earned skills to capture lobsters and bring them to shore. Now that tradition is at risk as fishery regulators consider the need for increased protections for North Atlantic right whales, regulations which could threaten the livelihoods of these resolute lobstermen.

Mike Sargent drives a big black Ram 2500 pick-up truck, the kind of truck that pushes through the mud of a Maine spring with ease, the kind of truck guys drive hard in television ads. Sargent, however, is a quiet-spoken 25-year-old lobsterman from Steuben, a little fishing town on the coast of Maine where having a big truck is as natural as breathing.

“I started fishing with my dad when I was eight,” Sargent explained at an empty Belfast restaurant on a cold spring afternoon. “My dad was a big figure in the fishing world Downeast.” Stanley “Cappy” Sargent was known as a skilled Milbridge fisherman of high standards, turning to scalloping, sea urchins, groundfishing and lobster fishing over the years. When Sargent was a youngster, his father would wake him at 1 a.m. to go to the boat, Gale Warning, and head out to sea. The elder Sargent fished further off the coast than many others in the region, out to the very limits of federal water. “He’d let me sleep until about 8 a.m., then we’d start to set,” Sargent said. “He taught me to splice when I was just 4.”
Sargent remembers fishing with his father one day as a young boy when the two saw a whale far offshore. “One of my dad’s friends was captain on a whale-watching boat and he called us on the radio to let us know he’d spotted it. He knew we wanted to see one,” Sargent recalled. He has never seen a whale since then.

Sargent and his two younger siblings, who now are also lobstermen, learned their trade as their father had learned his: on the water. Cappy Sargent took all three — Mike, his sister Whitney and brother William — aboard his boat as sternmen, a hard job made no easier for them as the captain’s offspring. “He wanted us to be up to snuff on all the marine laws, to be the best in everything we did,” Sargent recalled. By the time he was 15, Sargent had his first boat, a little 15-foot open skiff, and a hundred lobster traps of his own. He continued to work for his father on the weekends; after school his father helped him haul his traps.

Sargent graduated from Narraguagus High School in 2011 and headed to Maine Maritime Academy in Castine. His father had instilled in him a love of the sea but also a recognition that furthering his education would be a good investment. So Sargent began studying marine engineering operations. He bought a larger lobster boat, a 29-foot Novi. Once again his father was involved. “We rebuilt it the summer after freshman year,” he said.

Balancing college studies with lobstering filled Sargent’s days. “I would fish 600 to 700 traps until school started [in September] then take up about half. I would fish those after school until about November.” The commute, from his home in Milbridge to Castine and back, added up to nearly 600 miles per week.
Sargent received his undergraduate degree in 2015 then took a look around. Marine engineering jobs were few and far between that year. He had purchased another, larger boat which could lobster safely offshore, where he and his father had fished. So, after lobstering within the three-mile limit for the remainder of 2015, he headed out in June, 2016, federal lobster permit in hand, accompanied by Cappy. “My dad came with me to help set five trawls and taught me how to run [Loran] lines,” Sargent said.

Their collaboration was short-lived. On July 2, Cappy Sargent died unexpectedly.

Sargent became a full-time lobsterman soon after the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) mandated a radical change in lobstering practices. Since 1997, lobstermen in Maine and the other New England states had been required to make alterations in their fishing gear in order to protect large whales, such as the North Atlantic right whale, from becoming entangled. As the plan evolved, lobstermen had to work weak links into the top of their buoy lines to enable the lines to break if a whale should snag the rope with its mouth, tail or flippers. “I remember building buoys with my dad years ago. It was the time that breakaway swivels came in [a mechanism that allows the buoy to detach if it is snagged by a whale]. We would have to burn out the old spindles and set in new breakaways. It took forever!” Sargent recalled.

But even more dramatic rules were in the offing.

Over the years his father had participated in research with Department of Marine Resources (DMR) scientists and others to better understand the lobster stock and lobstermen’s role as stewards of that resource. Cappy allowed sea samplers to accompany him on his trips in order to record what he hauled in the traps on a given day, a vital bit of data collected by DMR since 2000. Laura Ludwig, now with the Center for Coastal Studies on Cape Cod, was one of those sea-samplers. “We went out in the winter of 2005-2006. I’d meet Cappy at the boat at 3 a.m., which was a little early for me. Cappy said something like ‘It’s not early if you got to bed at 7 p.m.’ He was never late, he never cancelled, he never called in sick,” she recalled. “And that guy could splice. He was a master splicer. He could splice a gangion into a groundline faster than I can tie a knot.”

Carl Wilson, director of DMR’s Marine Science Bureau, found Cappy Sargent eager to take part in any number of research projects. “Sea sampling, crab trap experiments, Jonah crab surveys. He served on the Lobster Advisory Council for a time. With Cappy, you always got an unvarnished opinion,” Wilson said. He also assisted the DMR in identifying where, exactly, deep sea coral lay in the area around Eastern Schoodic Ridge, helping to define more precisely the area of concern to federal regulators.
“He was kind of ornery about regulations but honestly, what Cappy said made a lot of sense. He had a perspective that most guys did not have,” Ludwig added. 

In 2009, NMFS instituted a challenging new regulation for lobstermen. Previously multiple lobster traps set together, called a trawl, were connected with polypropylene rope which floated in the water. Depending on how the traps lay on the sea floor, the rope could rise and make loops between the traps, loops that could potentially entangle whales. NMFS declared that all groundlines, as these connecting ropes are called, must be replaced with rope that sank onto the bottom. Lobstermen were faced with the cost of converting all their groundlines to the new, more expensive sinking line.

Ludwig, who was working for the Gulf of Maine Foundation at the time, coordinated a rope buy-back project funded with federal money. She travelled along the Maine coast to designated sites where lobstermen could bring their floating rope and exchange it, by the pound, for vouchers to buy sinking rope. In three years, the rope buy-back project collected over 2 million pounds of groundline from over 1,154 Maine lobstermen. Ludwig reported that over 1 million pounds of floating rope went to Conigliaro Industries in Framingham, Massachusetts, where it was used as a lightweight aggregate in concrete products. Other rope was recycled into door mats and other crafts. Cappy and his son were active proponents of the rope buy-back project. “Cappy maintained two sets of groundlines for his nearshore gear and his offshore lengtheners. It was a tremendous amount of work for him to rerig everything and then learn how to fish it safely,” recalled Ludwig. “But he made it work.”

For Mike Sargent, making every effort possible to ensure no whale gets tangled in his gear is second nature. But he sees that there are challenges to the changes that lobstermen have made. “The sinking groundlines snarl,” he said. “So to handle that we had to go to wider diameter line.” Sinking groundlines are known to snag onto anything near it. Snarls are not just an annoyance to lobstermen, they can be extremely dangerous. Lobstermen have found boulders and traps wrapped up in sinking groundline. If a trap tangled with other traps or boulders is brought up in the vessel’s hauler, the boat is tugged hard to one side, leaving it vulnerable to the waves, and the line itself can snap under the weight, releasing with violent force.

Then there’s the yearly expense. Sinking groundlines, made of polyester/dacron, wear out much faster than the polypropylene floating line because sinking line is constantly chaffing against the bottom. The fierce tides, swift bottom currents and rugged seafloor of Downeast Maine quickly take their toll and make fishing these ropes particularly difficult for lobstermen.
“[Floating] groundlines used to last five or six years,” Sargent said. “Now they’re gone in two years.” Cappy taught his son the importance of maintaining his gear; Sargent developed his own system to alert him when specific lengths of rope need to be retired. In addition to regular visual inspections, “I go by colors. My oldest is blue, 10 fathom. That will come out this year. Next year it’s the green, 15 fathom line that I’ll take up,” he explained.

In addition, Sargent marks all his lines with red tracers to identify it as Northeast lobster gear. These tracers are strands of red line, one foot in length, that are interlaced into the existing rope, three distinct marks per vertical line. Threading these red tracers into each of Sargent’s coils of rope takes time — a lot of time. Sargent uses a fid, a traditional tool shaped like a cone used to unlay strands within a rope, to open the line and weave the red tracer within it. Afterward Sargent takes the additional step of marking the one-foot length with red paint as well. “Yes, we have tracers in everything, 140 fathom endlines, 20 fathom endlines, everything,” he said ruefully.

Sargent may be young in years but he, like his sister and younger brother, holds decades of knowledge in his head, gleaned from his father and other older men in the fishery. “The Maine lobster fishery is a sustainable fishery. It’s made of families working together,” he said. “You have to realize that it’s often the only thing left in these small towns. There’s nothing else to fall back on.” He is carrying on his father’s work by helping the DMR with its sea sampling surveys, attending meetings to learn more about the challenges facing right whales and participating in other scientific studies. He was elected to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association board of directors in March. Like many of Maine’s younger lobstermen, Sargent knows that he has a continuing role to play in protecting the lobster resource and any whales in the region, both for himself and for those who come after him.