The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The modern lobster trap was almost a model for Trump’s border wall. Its inventor is dead at 88.

Brightly colored lobster trap buoys on a wharf in Maine. (Getty)
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The ocean floor off the coast of New England is dotted with rectangular boxes split into two compartments — a “kitchen,” where lobsters are lured into the trap, and a “parlor,” where the crustaceans remain before they’re hauled up, rubber bands slipped over their menacing claws. Along with the multicolored buoys that mark their location, these underwater boxes are the chief emblems of the hard-knock marine endeavor that supplies the Atlantic delicacy.

Once rendered in wood, lobster traps are now mostly fashioned out of welded wire mesh, thanks to a Massachusetts man, James Knott Sr., who died last week of natural causes, according to the company he founded, Riverdale Mills Corp. He was 88.

He was acclaimed by the company as a “profoundly influential innovator, whose products help millions of people.”

Most who enjoy a buttered lobster tail are benefiting from Knott’s creation. Aquamesh, the wire mesh fabric he invented, is used for 85 percent of lobster traps in North America, the company said. In a testament to its broad applications, a variant of the welded wire almost became an option for President Trump’s border wall, funding for which remains in limbo.

Knott was a fisherman, Army lieutenant, inventor and business owner. He was also a relentless adversary of government regulators and an advocate for free enterprise, at one point suing the federal government for $16 million after agents from the Environmental Protection Agency raided his company in 1997.

“What am I supposed to do — lay down and get stomped on?” he said in a 2001 interview with “60 Minutes” about his legal battle with the agency, which arose from suspicions about acidic wastewater.

As his company grew, the range of its wire-based products expanded, reaching beyond aquaculture to agriculture, horticulture, construction and water treatment. Security fencing known as WireWall — “virtually impossible to climb or cut,” Riverdale Mills advertises — is used in more than 1,000 locations worldwide, cordoning off embassies, borders, airports, power plants, prisons and military bases, according to the company.

Last year, Knott’s son, James Knott Jr., who had taken over as CEO, touted the fencing as a possible resource for Trump’s border wall. As Trump signed a January executive order calling for the “immediate construction of a physical wall” on the southern border, Knott told a CBS affiliate in Boston that welded wire of the sort used for lobster traps could “buy time for security personnel to identify those people and stop them.”

“You can’t get your fingers into the opening and climb it,” he said of the steel fencing, which the company had already provided to plug 23 miles on the southern border in Arizona, CBS reported. The company said it was equipped to furnish fencing covering another 2,000 miles.

In an interview with the Worcester Business Journal last summer, Knott said his company was “looking to play a leading role in the design and construction” of the wall. He said Riverdale Mills had advanced to “Phase 2 of the project,” which meant submitting, along with partners, “a more in-depth proposal that includes production projections, a list of key personnel, pricing (confidential), additional drawings, and mock ups of the proposed wall.”

Knott trumpeted his company as a finalist in the wall sweepstakes, even though bidders were told that silence was “advisable,” reported Foreign Policy, which observed that the younger Knott “seems bullish about his firm’s odds.”

In September, the company was not among those awarded a contract to build prototypes of the wall.

A centerpiece of Knott’s pitch was the made-in-America ethos of the company his father had founded in 1980, as the senior Knott worked with his sons to convert a derelict mill on the banks of the Blackstone River in Northbridge, Mass., into the 391,000-square-foot site of a leading manufacturer of welded wire mesh fabrics.

James Knott Sr. began fishing when he was 12, during summers spent in Gloucester, Mass., and continued to do so throughout his life. He earned a degree in economics at Harvard College and studied mechanical engineering at Northeastern University. He served for two years as a lieutenant in the Army, where he learned, “if they’re attacking you, just move on forward,” as he told a media outlet in Worcester, Mass., in 2014.

He developed the idea of a wire lobster trap in the 1950s, he told local media. He had seen how much time lobster catchers wasted repairing wooden traps, he said, and came up with a model “made out of welded wire mesh which is galvanized to protect it from the coating getting scraped off, and it’s plastic-coated to prevent the Atlantic Ocean from attacking the steel.”

Many people laughed at the idea, he recalled, but “it worked.”

“Of course, today all traps in New England are wire,” he said in 2014, almost 60 years after he put his first wire trap in the water in 1957. “They still make a lot of wooden traps, but those are just for coffee tables.”

Knott’s company saw its raw price for steel double this year, a result of tariffs imposed by Trump, the Portland Press Herald reported. The younger Knott said the company was absorbing the financial burden by modifying its debt-retirement schedule and dipping into energy savings.

“We are who we are because of the lobster industry, so we’re doing everything we can to make sure this won’t hurt the industry,” the CEO told the Press Herald.

It’s not the first time that action by the federal government has interfered with business.

In 1997, 21 agents from the EPA — some of them bearing automatic pistols, according to Knott — raided the company. The agency accused the owner of discharging acidic wastewater into a public sewer. It measured acidity according to pH levels and said samples from the plant yielded readings that were unlawfully low.

The following year, a federal grand jury indicted Knott and his company on two counts of violating the Clean Water Act.

In an interview with “60 Minutes,” Knott recounted how he hired a former top FBI handwriting analyst, who discovered that the numbers in the EPA’s logbooks had been modified.

The government moved to dismiss the indictment in 1999, saying preparation for the trial had raised doubts about the case.

But Knott wasn’t satisfied, accusing the EPA of harassing and humiliating him.

“I do not like to be called a criminal,” he told “60 Minutes.”

A federal district court awarded attorneys’ fees to Riverdale Mills but said the government hadn’t acted in bad faith. The government appealed the fee reward, while Knott challenged the finding that denied him additional recovery.

“I think it would be a crime for me to stop,” he said in the “60 Minutes” interview. “I think it would be a crime for me to walk away and allow those people to do to others what they attempted to do to me.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit affirmed the denial of fees to Knott and reversed the award to the company.

A tribute by the conservative Heritage Foundation extols Knott as a hero of American business. “No one knows better than James Knott, Sr. the dangers and frustrations overzealous regulatory agencies impose on small business owners,” the company claims in an online profile of the inventor and Heritage member.

The think tank celebrates Knott’s crusade against the EPA, as well as a separate battle with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over workplace safety rules.

Knott received an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine in 2006. A news release described his wire trap as “more manageable and less susceptible to damage than the old wooden traps” and praised his company for “effective environmental practices” and an “innovative approach to manufacturing.”

In a statement, Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine Lobster Institute, called Knott a “visionary” who had transformed the lobster industry.

“With the passing of Jim Knott, the lobster and shellfishing industry has lost one of its most prolific supporters,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

Knott is survived by four children and four grandchildren.

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