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Lobster Fishing

Martha Stewart Living Television

When we see a live lobster scurrying around a tank in a restaurant or fish market, we rarely think about how it got there. Each spiny shellfish sold or served represents a considerable investment of a fisherman's money and time, including a long apprenticeship and months spent on the open waters, sometimes in brutal conditions. The quaint image of the bearded old salt sailing leisurely across foggy waters belies the harsh reality of a modern trade that demands extraordinary endurance.

Jim Dow works for a few months as a scallop diver during the winter and devotes the rest of the year to lobster hauling in the waters off Maine. He and an assistant fish four hundred lobster traps daily; some haulers work eight hundred or even up to twelve hundred traps. After peak season (from mid-July through October), Jim can work ten to twelve hours a day hauling the traps and come home with just a pittance.

A lobster fisherman is essentially an independent entrepreneur with a substantial investment at stake. A functional boat equipped with depth sounders, radar, a radio telephone, and hydraulic haulers can cost at least $80,000; a single trap with lines and buoys runs between $30 and $35. Bait and gasoline must be purchased, and repairs must be made.

Training to become a fisherman is a long process that requires a two-year apprenticeship with a captain, who is then required to sponsor the applicant for a commercial license. Often both the training and the territory that provide a lobster fisherman his livelihood have been passed down over several generations. To mark his territory, each fisherman has a distinctly colored buoy that is registered with state agencies; the fisherman works within his set boundaries and doesn't stray beyond them.

Jim's day begins at 5 A.M., when he heads to the docks to load the boat with bait and gear. The traps are made of wood and wire and use stones or cement for ballast and fish for bait. In pursuit of the bait, the lobster moves into the head of the trap and down a funnel-shaped piece of netting that prevents it from crawling back out. Jim skirts the territory in his fishing boat, moving from buoy to buoy and quickly hauling in the traps. He attaches a hydraulic hauler to a trap's buoy; a split second later, the trap is drawn from the water, then opened, harvested, and reset. During the off season, a trap may be hauled only every four days, while during the summer and fall, each one is hauled daily.

Jim, whose father and brother are also fishermen, began lobstering when he was 11. He is married, with two daughters, and says that only a certain type of person can dedicate himself to both lobstering and a family. It can be difficult to manage, he says, but he adds, "I could never imagine myself doing anything else. The smell of the ocean, the smell of the dock -- it's really a feeling of home."