Bruce Fernald, 67, is a sixth-generation lobsterman from Little Cranberry Island. This interview was recorded in March 2018 at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. Fernald was interviewed by Galen Koch and the interview was edited by intern Katie Clark.
Little Cranberry is very quiet this time of year. There’s maybe 60 people. We just got fiber optic wired to every house, so we have all the Internet that
we could handle. We are basically almost all hooked up. It’s a $1.3 million project that the town has taken on. We want to be able to attract people. If you don’t have good Internet, it might not happen. [There] used to be over 100 people on the island. Now it’s down to 60 or 65. It’s getting harder and harder. People just want more stuff.
I grew up [on Little Cranberry]. I’m sixth generation from there. I have twin boys. They’re 35. They’ve moved away. I also have three brothers and two sisters. Two of my brothers are lobster fishermen. One has two sons, one has one son. They’re not lobstering. My younger brother, he has two sons. My younger brother is not a fisherman and nor do his children want to be fishermen. So that’s the end of our six generations of lobster fishermen from Little Cranberry. I didn’t push [my sons]. I said, “You guys want help, I’ll help all I can.” But no, they wanted to do other things. One’s a commodity broker in Baltimore and the other’s a chef outside of Portland.
We have a co-op on the island with 25 members, and there’s probably nine that are 30 or younger. A lot of us are in our 60s, so it’s good to have those younger guys, but we’re going to need even more. A lot of people live on the island half the year and move to the mainland the other half of the year because of their kids going to high school. We do have a school on the island, but it just goes through eighth grade.
Some parents want more for their kids than what the island can offer. It’s a positive-minus kind of thing. There’s one-on-one teaching practically because there’s only 11 kids in the school and they got two teachers. You get a great education. There’s not so much of the social activities, but a lot of kids that come off the island, as far as sports go, are great runners because that’s one thing that you can do real easily. One of my sons came home his sophomore year and said, “I’m going to go for pole-vaulting.” I said, “Pole-vaulting?” Well, his senior year, he ended up being state champ. So I thought that was pretty cool coming from Little Cranberry Island.
There is a lot of positives about the island as far as kids go. It’s a great place to grow up because it’s a safe place. In the summertime, it’s like a summer camp for them. All the summer kids are there. It goes up to 300 or so in population. They can get on their bikes and go wherever without any hassles. So it’s a good place to grow up or to spend your summer. By the time September rolls around, you’re ready for some peace and quiet. I used to not like winters, but sometimes now they’re not long enough because I like sitting by the wood stove and watching movies. Get my head back together after eight months of pounding my body on the water.
I fish basically around the Cranberry Islands and Baker Island and off towards the Duck Islands and off to the east, maybe a mile or so from Baker
Island. I go off about 10 miles and that’s where I fish. A lot of the guys from our harbor now are going 30 or 40 miles or more out. I’m getting too old for that.
Things have changed. Whether it’s water temperature or what, there never used to be the body of lobsters out in the deeper water 25 to 30 miles off as they are now. But now they’re there almost all the time. It’s like there’s a wall that these lobsters, wherever they’re coming from, they’ll stop.
My theory is some of them trickle in and go into the inshore, where it’s traditional, but now they’re not doing it quite so much in the same numbers, because I think water temperature is warming up and they like the colder water out in the deeper water. That’s not proven, but that’s the way it’s been talked about by a lot of people.
The Island Institute [runs] a climate change workshop that they’ve been doing for 12 years. They get fishermen and scientists together and Island Institute staff, it’s probably 20 people sitting around a table. I think two-thirds of them are fishermen. We tell what we’ve seen on the water and just compare notes from up and down the coast. We are observing any climate change stuff that we might see, whether it’s water temperature or tides or currents. We’re observing and comparing with the scientists.
I work with Jim Manning out of Woods Hole. He does a project called eMOLT, which has a temperature probe. You put it in one trap. I’ve had it there for 12 years. It records the bottom temperature at 180 feet constantly. I’ll keep it until I take my gear up and then I send him the little tube. He downloads all that information onto his computer and sends me a graph of what the water temperature did the whole year. That’s pretty cool.
My eighth grade year I had 20 traps and a skiff. I did it for one summer and I never did it again. I didn’t like it. I worked different jobs on the island and stuff. Then I spent four years in the Navy and came back home. Got home one day in late afternoon and having dinner that night at my parents’ house, my father said, “Well, see you in the morning, 5:30.” I said, “What? I just got home. I need a few days to chill out.” “No, see you in the morning.” That was in 1973. I haven’t stopped since.
I had an old wooden boat then. You had wooden traps. The gear has changed a lot. The electronics have changed a lot. Before, I had a compass and a flasher that would show me how deep the water was. Now we have GPSs, plotters, radars, temperature sensors on your bottom machine that tells you what the water is on the surface. Everything has just leap-frogged, basically. Wooden buoys that we used to have. Wine bottles for toggles between the buoy and the trap that would help hold the rope up. A lot of guys got hurt by them because the glass flying everywhere. All that old stuff is done and now we’re in a modern era.
It makes it a lot easier to go fishing. Guys can step right into a boat. They turn their GPS on and say, “Oh, there’s a shoal here,” put the cursor on it, that’s where they go to. Before you had to know landmarks. “I have to line up this lighthouse with this mountain and then this island coming out by this island so far. I have to go until those points intersect.” Then, if you got fog, you got to rely totally on your compass and your fathometer to try to find that area. All this has changed big time with electronics.
[There’s a lot of] fear of right whale regulations, which right now is probably the most serious we’ve ever seen. There was 15 or so that were killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer . That was from crab fishermen and ships up there. The whales were there, but they’d never really been there before. All of a sudden, it’s right in the season where these guys fish for snow crab. They use big traps and a lot of floating rope which comes right to the surface, and a lot of whales got wound up. It was like all of a sudden, boom, they’re there, and they’d never been there before like that. That really sparked the lawsuits going. Even though we had nothing to do with it, we’re still in the whole circle of things. That’s just the scariest thing.
I’m 67 years old, so I can retire if I get forced out of it and I’m fine, but a lot of the younger guys, I don’t know. Especially on the island, the island’s probably 90 percent dependent on lobstering. We had 1.5 million pounds brought into the co-op last year. Total sales are probably $8 million. That’s not coming from painting houses and mowing lawns. That would be the end of the island or the way we see it and know it.
[Fishing has] been my life. I have built a house. I have put two kids through college. I have built three new boats. I’m comfortable. So I’d say that lobstering›s treated me very well. It’s been right on through the years, even in the lean times. Fortunately, lobsters went through the roof when my kids went to college or I wanted to build a new boat.
I have one story called “The Barbie Lobster.” A couple of friends—one fisherman and his crew—this was, I don’t know, 15 years ago or so—they took a female lobster that had a V-notch in its tail. They took Barbie clothes and fit a skirt up over the tail. They put a top on her. They put high heels on a couple of her legs. She started out in my brother’s trap. He hauled it up. “What is this?” He gets on the radio. “I just caught this lobster that’s dressed up like a Barbie doll.” Everybody thought that was pretty funny. Well, then, they released it and somebody else caught it. The last time it was seen, nine different people had caught that lobster.
My wife was a writer for the Bar Harbor Times at the time. She wrote a story on it with a column that she did every week. Then, Public Broadcasting called, picked up the story. AP called. There was Public Broadcasting calling from Michigan, all over. You can Google Barbie Lobster and you’ll see all kinds of hits on it. So that was pretty funny.
Editor: follow this LINK to read the original article by Barbara Fernald.
Voices of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, an Oral History was made possible by Maine Sea Grant, The First Coast, College of the Atlantic, and the Island Institute. This series is coordinated by Natalie Springuel, Maine Sea Grant.