How to Lobster

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Introduction: How to Lobster

About: I love to stay home as much as as I love to travel, I've been to 49 states (missing Alaska) and 31 countries. I have two wiener dogs now and a cat. We all live together in a house in the woods. With no roaches.

Lobsters are once again plentiful in Maine. It has been one of the most successful aquaculture experiments to date, and its success is due to innovations instituted by the lobster fishermen themselves to protect their livelihood and thereby protect the lobster population. I had the opportunity to go out this summer with Bob, a real lobsterman, to help haul in 30 of his 100 traps. There were so many things to know and do and I pestered him with questions which he patiently answered all the while letting me take photos.

Lobstering is really hard work and learning even the most basic things such as where to locate the bait inside the trap doesn't come in a book. Lobstering is competitive, fuel is expensive, and traps are expensive. It's not about what to have for dinner - it's about making a living. You may be sure a lobsterman (or woman) is not about to share tricks that they themselves learned the hard way.

If you are going to be a lobsterer you are supposed to learn the hard way as well. But the information that the lobster fishermen came up with to ensure that there were plenty of lobsters to be caught in the future was shared: laws were enacted as information was accumulated and innovations in trap designs were made. The new rules to be followed showed results in an increase in the lobster population, ensured the safety of a traditional way of life, the industry that surrounds it, and of an ecosystem.

Learning all you all you need to know about how to lobster still won't be of much practical use because getting a commercial lobster license is only possible if 5 people give up their licences (as in die) for the next person in line to get one. But even that limitation has the benefit of protecting the industry. And it is an industry: think tourism, t-shirts, artwork, license plates, cookware, bibs, restaurants, cookbooks, butter melters, claw crackers, soup at Costco, postcards, posters, fish tanks, bait suppliers, foul weather gear, mesh nets, inspectors, etc.

Step 1: Supplies

  • Lobster trap
  • Lobster licence - if you are just going to eat them and not sell them then you may get a personal licence for up to 5 traps (in Maine). Other states or countries will be different of course.
  • A boat - not a dock.
  • An electric winch would be a nice thing to have.
  • Bait - there are rules and regulations about what can and cannot be used - check your area's rules.
  • Buoy - painted with colors that are different than any other's around the area you want to fish.
  • Line that will not rot, to attach the buoy to the trap.
  • A cooler to put lobsters in
  • A regulation double sided lobster measurer
  • A brick (to help the trap sink)
  • Butter and lemons

Step 2: Traps

The lobster trap of today is an amazing safety device for the preservation of lobsters - how strange is that?, something that is made to trap them for us to eat actually protects the population, keeps it strong and is one of the most instrumental modifications in ensuring that lobsters are plentiful again.

Traps can become lost from their buoys and when that happens they are pretty much gone for good. When that happens the lobsters inside die, then other lobsters come in and eat away at them, pretty soon hundreds of lobsters are filling the trap over time. But the traps are now made with metal rings that rust in the saltwater and then doors will open all around and there won't be any reason for lobsters to go inside and get caught forever.

Another great innovation are the escape spaces on the sides of traps to let out small lobsters, small lobsters can be attacked and eaten by larger ones inside of a trap. The escape openings are just the right size to let small lobsters escape and larger ones to stay put.

Step 3: Bait

Bob uses frozen salted herring. It won't rot as fast as simply frozen herring. When a trap is pulled up and the lobsters are taken out, the mesh bag that holds the bait is checked to see the condition or quantity of the bait. It probably will need a top up of herring or maybe even some really rotten herring should be tossed out.

Where you place and attach the bag of bait is really important, if it is too close to the opening of course the lobsters won't go in. If it's too close the sides of your trap then lobsters could just pick at it from the outside of the trap and never go inside.

Step 4: Size

It takes about 5 years for a lobster to be large enough to be harvested. And it can take that long for them to breed. So measuring a lobster to be sure it has had a few breeding seasons to go is really important to protect the population as a whole.

Step 5: Proper Measurement

Proper measurement means measuring from the bottom of the eye socket to the bottom of the carapace: the measurement must be at least 3 1/4" but no larger than 5". There are hefty fines for taking a lobster that is too small or too large. And you can get into the same trouble if you are caught with lobster pieces - like tails. If you are caught with a lobster tail then there is no way to check the size that the whole lobster was. We found a lobster's tail in one trap, it was small and Bob said it was from other lobsters eating that lobster.

Step 6: Females

When a female lobster with eggs is caught she must be liberated right away, but first her tail needs to be checked for a V-shaped notch, if there's not one there already you have to put one into the right side of the middle. That notch will protect her from being harvested even if she is not carrying eggs. It will tell other lobster fishermen by a just a fast glance that she is a breeding female. Notches will survive for several molts of a female's shell as she grows, and if you catch her and see even a smallish notch you should notch her again.

She could be carrying 6,000 to 100,000 eggs but scientists think that only 1/10th of 1% make it to the minimum size for harvesting. Very poor odds. She will carry and protect those eggs for 6 to 11 months, fanning them with her swimmer flaps to oxygenate them.

Step 7: Protection = Success

Because of the trap innovations and harvesting restrictions that lobsterers themselves have come up with (and are now laws), lobsters are abundant once again. Prices might not reflect that because the prices of everything else that goes into being a lobsterer stay constant - fuel, bait, new traps, line, buoys etc. They are selling their catch to wholesalers at obviously wholesale prices. Then from there the lobsters may be kept alive in giant tanks to grow larger so they can be sold for more money, then sold to a store or a restaurant which of course has to pay more than a wholesaler and sell them for more to make a profit. The lobster you buy in a grocery store will probably have been sold and bought 3 times before you get to it.

Step 8: Dinner...Lunch...or Breakfast!

Lobster has been one of my favorite foods for my entire life, but nothing compares to eating a lobster on the same day it is caught. This was one of my all time best ever meals and I was ever so happy that Bob had let me have two to take home to cook. If I had been just a few seconds slower finding my camera Possum Bean would have been one happy dog, as it was all he got was my melted butter, and I had more in the fridge.

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    40 Discussions

    Hey you! Long time, hope you are well, reading lobster 'ibles eh? Aren't you landlocked still? Yeah, I had my yellow pants on backwards even.

    I used to use the biodegradable hog rings in several locations on a trap but when the quality became so bad that they deteriorated sometimes in just weeks I replaced all but the required one vent with stainless.

    2 replies

    Yes, one escape vent with biodegradable rings is required per trap. I used to use additional ones when the rings lasted for a whole season but when the quality became so poor that after a couple weeks or so I'd haul traps with escape vents open and no lobsters inside I convereted the other vents to stainless rings.

    Maine is my favorite state by far.

    And I ate the best lobster of my life over there as well, thanks for this i'ble !

    1 reply

    I love Maine too, but the summers are soooo humid, on the coast anyway. Thank you!

    The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson is an excellent and well researched book that makes that assertion as well as several others that I have read. No doubt though that thoughtful regulations have also had a positive impact. Now if those same regulation could bring back Atlantic Salmon and cod back to Maine.

    1 reply

    I think I read that that book opened the eyes of so many about just how long lobsters live - and more importantly how long it takes them to be old enough to simply mate.

    Did you know that squirrels have a life span of 25 years? They are not at all like rats and possums which live about 3 years. It makes me so sad when I see so many dead squished flattened squirrels on the road.

    On the small island where I live the average amount of the little guys getting hit by cars is 35 a day. The intelligence of animals is measured by how much they play and we all know that playing is just about all that squirrels do all day long. Totally non sequitur, I know, just saying.

    very cool instructable, this is something that I have always wanted to do. I have read however that the rise in lobster stocks in the north atlantic directly correlates to the collapse of the cod stocks as cod were the biggest predators of small lobsters.

    1 reply

    Thank you. Cod, cod, cod... one of the most delicious fish ever. Poor cod. I bought a book a few years ago by a French author called "How to talk about books you have not read", I bring this up because I was reminded it of it just now with your reference to cod and the book about it which I have not read, but that I have heard so much about that I feel I could indeed talk about it.

    Good write up.

    The biodegradable hog rings get worn out in a season. Those shiny stainless steel ones you have pointed out last forever.

    Yay lobsters!

    4 replies

    No, they look like stainless ones but I swear they are some cheap metal that rusts fast - it's the law, they have to rust.

    I put on hundreds if not thousands of those a year through my gear.
    Those are stainless.

    The one on the door might have biodegradables but the patch on the outboard side and the vent on the interior side are stainless.

    Still a good write up. :)

    Hi Kootertooter,

    I'm waiting to hear back from Bob about those rings, but for now I will just be befuddled, and I do believe you know what you are talking about. I went and looked up the regulations on the government site and it says that they have to be a ferrous metal, so I just can't imagine that Bob would have put on stainless ones. As soon as he gets back to me I will tell you what he says. Why do you use stainless ones on your gear?

    I use the stainless steel hog rings on the outboard side of my traps when they are up on the rail. I run double-legal vents in my gear - I have vent with two round holes on the outboard side and on the interior there is a long rectangle. The vents with the two circles are called "crab vents" because when you actively try to catch crabs they have a hard time scurrying through the holes (the market sized ones anyways) while undersized lobsters just back through the holes. The vents with the long rectangles are "lobster vents" and those are when you are actively targeting just lobsters, the long rectangle allows the crabs to slide right through - lobsters have a slightly harder time doing this because they are higher in profile.

    Since the vents on the outboard side are away from where one is working, they aren't as easy to check to see if the rings need replacing, the ones on the interior you can just bump with your hand while you're banding to see how everything is holding up, if they break or are missing, pop some new ones on.

    Both of those style vents are designed so that when the hog rings fail they float up and open the escapes. An alternate spot to put a vent is on top of the door over the netting in the back, when those rings rot away it pops open and out they go - often you will find lobsters up on top of the net waiting for this to happen. In some of my older gear I have a soft wood lathe tucked into the wire mesh making an obstruction over the escape vent - this is another type of biodegradable vent - they hold up for a couple of seasons depending on the type of water and salinity content.

    As an aside, running double legal vents lets one bounce back and forth between actively looking for crabs and lobsters - just slip a clothes pin in the center of the rectangular vent - since that is the one with biodegradable hog rings, even when it is partially blocked like that it will pop open all the same when the rings fail.

    Fun times on the water.

    Going over to the Canadian connection, they have two different markets when it comes to lobsters; Canners and Markets. The canners are much smaller than our smallest legal lobster here in Maine. Even the smallest legal Market is smaller than our smallest ones (although not by much) and depending on the area of Canadian waters and time of year there are gender specific size limitations when they get so big. Whereas we just cap it off at 5".

    Mass and NH can catch and land lobsters greater than 5" on the carapace, but not in Maine. At least we got them to stop taking v-notches. V-notches mean nothing in Canada. They don't even bother banding the canners. Very noisy when the crunching starts in the crates. At least they don't use pegs in the claw joints anymore.

    The protective measures and conservation policies in Maine have saved the fishery and transformed it into what it is today. Everyone has benefited from this.

    Yay lobsters!