Gary Parsons throttles down the 284-horsepower Volvo diesel to an idle and his 36-foot lobster boat, the Mark A., drifts in the water near Bald Porcupine Island off Bar Harbor, Maine. He holds up a sculpin, whistles sharply several times, then tosses the trash fish onto the surface of Frenchman's Bay.
The bloated fish remains afloat, rising and falling on the swells, and then a speck lifts out of the trees on the crown of the rocky island. The speck becomes larger and larger and, like a jet fighter on a strafing mission, drops down out of the sky, skims near the surface, sinks its talons into the sculpin, lifts off and returns to the island.
It is a bald eagle, and it and its mate have been living on this island during spring and summer for more than 20 years. During that time, these endangered symbols of American independence have been responding to Gary Parson's whistle and offer of free food.
There are efforts to save the bald eagle and its natural way of life. Now, there are those who think lobstermen like Gary Parsons, who epitomize independent man against the elements, are endangered, too, and that changes in the industry will have to be made to save the lobster and the lobsterman's way of life.
It's a way of life for only about 8,000 license holders in a state of approximately 1 million residents, but they are an obvious attraction for Maine's tourists, and their product is of great interest to diners all over the country, as well as being of great importance to many other businesses.
Whether all of them continue lobstering indefinitely depends on the fishermen, the state legislature and the lobster itself. Can the fishermen and the legislature agree on what to do about what many perceive as a problem, and can the lobsters keep reproducing in sufficient quantities to keep the industry from collapsing before the problem is solved?
"It worries the hell out of me," says Jim Markos, manager of Maine Shellfish Co. Inc., a seafood distributor in Ellsworth. "In addition to lobster as a commodity, we have to look at it as an image thing -- if lobster becomes unavailable, it will drag down other businesses," says Markos. "Maine is lobster."
While the total catch has remained relatively stable for a decade, the number of traps in the water has increased significantly, to an estimated 2 million, more than double what it was 15 years ago. It takes more and more effort, and capital investment, to gain the same yields.
"There's no question we hammer them lobsters very hard," says Rich Langton, director of the fisheries research laboratory in West Boothbay Harbor run by the state's Department of Marine Resources.
What it all boils down to is this: 86 percent of the lobsters taken have just reached legal size after seven or eight years of molting and growing. They are being caught as soon as they reach the 3 3/16-inch minimum as measured on the carapace from the back of the eye socket to the back of the body, or beginning of the tail.
And what that means, according to Langton, is that only 1 or 2 percent of the females have reached sexual maturity and reproduced before they are caught. If that is the case, for how much longer will there be little lobsters who will grow into big, legal-sized lobsters?
On one hand, says Langton, "You could say everything's good, in that we're obviously taking advantage of the resource to its fullest. If nothing happens, the lobster fishery is probably in good shape."
However, Langton adds that "if there were a climactic change, or the way of fishing changes, who knows what could happen. The future is not as rosy as it could be."
The catch has fluctuated wildly over the years and the peak catch, according to figures tabulated since 1880, was 11,091 metric tons in 1889. The low point was 2,323 metric tons in 1936. After World War II, it increased steadily and for the last nine years has been between 8,386 and 10,360 metric tons.
The system "is working, but it may be working to its full potential," says Langton. "There's no margin for error."
The reason lobsters are perhaps being taken to their full potential would not be apparent to out-of-staters who think that the next time they're in Maine they'll pick up one of those quaint lobster pots and make a coffee table. In fact, there may not be any oak lobster pots around to pick up. Modern technology has increased efficiency and had a significant impact on the industry in the last 10 years, according to Langton.
Rectangular wire traps are fast replacing the quonset hut-shaped wooden traps, and Fiberglas boats have replaced wooden hulls. In both cases, the equipment requires less care, increasing the time available for fishing. Moreover, plastic-foam buoys aren't as heavy and long-lasting synthetic line is lighter, making the pulling of lobster pots easier.
One of the most significant changes, according to Langton, was the introduction of the hydraulic pot hauler. No longer does a lobsterman have to haul in the line on each trap, hand over hand. A machine can pull in a string of pots and a fisherman can haul more traps in a day. At any rate, many people agree the lobster is being overfished but they do not agree on what to do about it.
As Spencer Apollonio, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, says, "The issue is before the legislature for possible change and is creating a lot of tension."
Currently proposed are incremental increases in the minimum legal size to 3 1/2 inches, provided Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Canada do the same, and elimination of Maine's unique upper legal limit of 5 inches.
Not before the legislature, but a "perennial debate," according to Apollonio, is the question of limiting the number of traps in the water. The legislature's Marine Resources Committee held three hearings on the subject along the coast last fall. "I'm hopeful that something will come of it," says Apollonio. "I think there has to be a resolution."
The argument for raising the minimum is that at 3 1/2 inches, 15 percent of the lobsters caught would have already reproduced. Those who argue against say that it would initially lead to lean times for the fishermen and increase the trade in short lobsters.
The argument for eliminating the maximum-size limit is that most of them are outside Maine's 12-mile territorial limit and that fishermen catch them anyway, keeping them offshore in pounds (cages) until they have enough to take into New Hampshire and Massachusetts to sell. The argument for keeping the upper limit is that they are a large broodstock with no natural predators and their offspring migrate toward shore.
As for limiting the number of traps in the water, the question is, how? The average fisherman has 250 traps, Parsons has 1,000 and there are said to be some with as many as 2,000 traps. It's analagous to the arms race.
Do you limit the number of traps per fisherman, or do you limit access by eliminating part-timers? Perhaps half of the state's 8,000 license holders would be considered full-timers, but how do you define a part-timer?
Kathleen (Kat) Farrin of South Bristol is obviously a part-timer. She has 150 traps and fishes only in summer and fall. Gary Parsons takes in his traps and goes shrimping during January, February and March. Is he a full-timer?
Besides the problems involved in solving the problem, another argument against change is that the system is working. In theory, it is working, says Langton, because (1) the five-inch maximum leaves a broodstock, (2) the offshore population is thought to be a broodstock for inshore stock, and (3) the V-notch program under which fishermen must place a notch in tails of egg-bearing females, which thereafter are protected.
Parsons thinks the state laws are fine as they are and that natural law (and economics) will solve the problem. "The strong will survive and the weak will go under," says Parsons.
If the minimum size is increased, according to Parsons, "you make more illegal lobsters for people to take. What we we need is more wardens to protect what we've got. There's a lot of illegal lobster going ashore."
Nor does Parsons see any reason to remove the five-inch maximum: "If you take off the upper limit, it's a one-time thing. Once you take the big ones, they're gone."
As for limiting the number of traps, Parsons admits, "A guy with not many traps wants a limit. A guy with a lot doesn't."
One of those who would like to see a limit on the number of traps is Farrin, who thinks "lobsters are really on the decline. To get the same amount of lobsters you have to put out many more traps. It's turning into real competition. The old simple way is dying out."
Farrin's way is the old way. She fishes in an open 15-foot skiff with an eight-horsepower outboard, pulling the old wooden pots she has set by hand. Farrin, 36, got into lobstering eight years ago with her brother, Dennis, when his seasonal help didn't show up.
"Friends from the West Coast said women fish there, why don't you ask him. I said 'oh no,' but then he asked me and I went with him for the season," says Farrin. The next season Dennis took over the family store and lobster pound, which is just across an inlet from the small house where she lives with her two children, and she took over his traps and a skiff that belonged to her father.
She goes out each morning about 7 and goes at her own speed. Her traps are on "about six fathom" (36 feet) of line and "a lot of times they're only in about 10 feet of water," she says.
"It's hard work but I like the quiet," she says. "I don't want an automatic hauler, because of the noise. It seems like technology is taking over. Sometimes setting traps on the bottom and putting bait in it seems kind of primitive. I wonder if at some point they'll have a system, catching them by sound.
"I have a feeling," she adds, "that my time in lobstering is limited."
If the end of Farrin's time is coming, Parsons, 44, has made a commitment beyond what most of us would imagine.
He estimates that he has $65,000 to $70,000 invested in the Mark A., named for his 9-year-old son. It has the latest electronic equipment -- fishscope, depth flasher, depth recorder (on paper), radar, automatic pilot, VHF radio, CB radio and Loran-C radio, which allows a fisherman to go right to his buoys or pounds miles at sea -- as well as the hauler, which is a sort of flywheel that can quickly pull traps from the bottom in more than 300 feet of water.
Then there are the wire traps, $19 for just the bare wire. "By the time you have someone knit up heads the net-like tunnels that the lobsters enter , pour cement to weigh down the traps , add the door lathe, 75-fathom of rope 450 feet for about $25 , Styrofoam buoys about $3 apiece , plus the plastic spindle $2 , and the top float is a couple of bucks, counting your labor, you have close to $100 for a pair of traps." says Parsons.
Add his pickup truck, the pound he has floating in the harbor, everything from slickers to boots, bait baskets, the cooler that he sells out of at his house, and Parsons is a independent businessman with an investment of considerably more than $100,000. His return is based on a current wholesale price of $3.25 a pound, which could rise to $3.50 or $3.75 a pound as demand increases this summer. That's a lot of lobsters he has to catch.
If there are great differences between Farrin and Parsons, there are also similarities.
"It's something you've really got to enjoy doing," says Parsons. "You've got to be independent; you've got to answer to yourself. A lot of days you go out and end up coming back because the weather's bad. But you don't listen to the weatherman and if he says it's bad sleep in, or you wouldn't get anything done. A lot of guys can't do that."
A lobsterman also has to "have a good memory. He can almost sense where they are and almost feel when he has to do something," he says. "You learn by trial and error. Nobody's going to teach you anything."
He and his helper, Dennis Kelley, 29, of Southwest Harbor, leave the Bar Harbor town pier at the first sign of light. When fishing is good, they get home just in time to eat supper and fall asleep before the sun sets.
They spend the days hauling traps around the islands in Frenchman's Bay, along the rocky shore of Mt. Desert Island and Acadia National Park, and on strings of traps as far as 25 miles offshore and several hundred feet down.
While Parsons brings his boat alongside his buoys and gaffs the line, Kelley prepares herring stuffed in net bags and redfish (ocean perch) to bait the trap. More often than not, the trap contains no lobsters, only crabs and sculpin that have been attracted to the bait, which must be replaced.
When they do have lobsters, Kelley bands the claws, to keep the lobsters from attacking each other, and then the traps are dropped back in the water and they move on to the next buoy.
While the good days do not come as often as they used to, sometimes there are stories worth repeating.
"Two falls ago, on a string of 22 double traps, on the first day of hauling," says Parsons, "we got 268 lobsters. They were coming up so fast the two of them Kelley and Parsons' 21-year old son, Donnie couldn't keep up with the banding."
Did anyone ask where those traps were?
"The only ones who would ask would be the guys you're really friendly with," says Parson, "and the guys who aren't wouldn't ask 'cause you wouldn't tell them."
Besides, they didn't tell anyone how well they had done and, as Parsons adds, "All fishermen are liars, or tend to be."
Langton hopes that the Maine fishermen will continue to have plenty of fodder for tall tales.
"As biologists we don't know what sustains the fishery," he adds. "It's working now, but we're afraid something could happen if conditions or the technology change."
There is always the possibility, says Langton, that "the fishery could go along and suddenly collapse. Fisheries do collapse, as the herring fishery did on the Georges Bank in the '70s. In retrospect, it's easy to see why they collapse, and fishing pressure is one indicator of a collapse."