I’m a Maine lobsterman. I leave a lot of my life up to chance. But I don’t know if I can handle this level of uncertainty.
“I don’t want to haul 400 traps, get in at three o’clock, then go sit in some parking lot trying to unload lobsters for three hours.”
Herman Coombs is a lobster fisher in Orrs Island, Maine. He’s been fishing since elementary school, he says, and went full-time after high school. In all those years, he can think of two times when the price of lobster has been any lower—in 2001, in the weeks after 9/11, and during the Great Recession. With restaurants in Portland and Lewiston—Maine’s largest cities—still closed for dine-in seating, and the state’s crucial tourism industry sure to take a massive hit this summer, he’s worried.
Pictured above, Herman Coombs, a lobster fisher in Orrs Island, Maine on his fishing boat.
Typically, during this time of year, he’s out on the water between two and four days a week. He rises in the early hours of morning, and takes his 45-foot fishing boat out on the water, to spend the day hauling up traps from the bottom of the ocean floor. Even though he makes most of his money in the fall and early winter—when he sets traps over 30 miles offshore, and might spend days and nights at sea—this slow season is enjoyable. With the nice weather, he can fish in a T-shirt, and be home by early afternoon.
Not so this year. For the last two months, Coombs says, he’s fished once a week, or sometimes, every other week. With prices falling “like a stone,” he’s staying on shore. Coombs has a lot of experience dealing with uncertainty. “We’re setting blind,” he tells me—meaning that he never knows what’s in a trap until he reels it in. “You could have no lobsters, or you could have ten. There’s no way of knowing until that trap hits the surface of water.” But even for him—someone whose livelihood depends, in great part, on chance—the uncertainty of the pandemic might be too much to handle.
Right now, we’re only hauling about once every two weeks. That’s because of the weather. We’re getting a lot of wind in the afternoons, which ends up being pretty gusty, and isn’t a lot of fun. And the prices. They were okay, and then since Memorial Day, it’s been dropping like a stone. I mean, yeah—I can still go make a couple bucks. But that’s just putting more stress on the market. The guy I sell lobster to has, I don’t know, 15 or 16 crates just sitting down there, at the wharf, that he can’t get rid of.
I’ve gone for as low as, I think, $2.60 per pound. And that was when the World Trade Center bombing happened. And then, back in 2008, we were at $3, $3.15 for quite a while. Recently, the price went from six dollars to four, and last I heard, we might get lucky to get $3.50. It costs me almost two dollars, per trap, to haul—between the bait, the fuel, and paying another guy. So at the end of the day, I get to make a dollar, a dollar fifty per pound? That’s really not worth it—not with the volume that we’re catching.
I mean, you go out, and catch 400 or 500 pounds, and you’re leaving with 600 bucks. I know that sounds like a lot of money, but when you only get to do that once a week, it’s not really worth it. At some point, you have to say, $600 is better than nothing. That will pay a couple bills and put groceries on the table. But, I just—you want to get something for your effort.
One way my life has changed is that I do not go to town very often. This time of year, when I’m doing boat maintenance, and stuff like that—I try not to run to town every day because it’s a 24-mile round trip.
When I’m not on the water, I putter. I build my own traps. I’m probably like everybody else right about now—I’m doing stuff around the house that I probably didn’t have time for before. Before all this stuff started, I bought another boat. Now I’m not sure it was a great idea. But I’ve been working on that for the last two months.
One way my life has changed is that I do not go to town very often. This time of year, when I’m doing boat maintenance, and stuff like that—I try not to run to town every day because it’s a 24-mile round trip. If you’re just running up for a couple bolts, it’s not worth it. But now I have to call the marine store in Brunswick, and if they have what I’m looking for, they put it in a bag and they set it out on a table. Then you pay over the phone. I mean, if I went in to town to buy a couple items, I’d probably sit and shoot the shit for 20 or 30 minutes. The people that run the marine store here in Brunswick are very nice people. I can’t do that. Eventually, you will be able to. But when?
If this is a long-term thing, I’ll run my business the way that I’ve always done it. I’ve got to be wary of how much stuff I buy. Maybe I don’t buy a couple extra barrels of bait like I would use to. I may not haul as often—the more you go, the more lobsters you put on the market, the less that you may get for them.
I am concerned about what’s going to happen in the next month or two. Maine restaurants were supposed to open for dine-in seating on the first, but the governor just closed them again, and she hasn’t given them an opening date yet.
I have friends in the restaurant industry, and they’ve spent their savings trying to keep these places alive, and they can only go so long. So what are we going to do if there’s no places to go to anymore, and we have all these empty buildings? I think that’s what I’m more afraid of than the question of what to do with the lobster I catch. I’ll always be able to eat. I don’t like lobster that much, but, you know, I won’t go hungry.
Some of my lobsters go to restaurants. Some get shipped to Canada to be processed into lobster tails. You know, frozen stuff—lord knows what else they do with them. Some stay local. There seems to be more people now in the Northeast, you know, selling lobster out the back of their truck. There’s people who go on Facebook and say, “Hey, I’ve got 200 pounds of lobsters, I want six dollars a pound, I’m going to be in such-and-such’s driveway.”
I don’t want to haul 400 traps, get in at three o’clock and then go sit in the parking lot for three hours.
I don’t believe I’d be able to sustain doing that every day. I don’t have the energy, unfortunately. I don’t want to haul 400 traps, get in at three o’clock and then go sit in the parking lot for three hours. I will if I have to—if that’s going to be the way to get rid of your lobsters and make money. But that’s generally why we sell to somebody, because they’re the ones that take care of where the lobsters go. Maybe as I got older, I got more complacent just selling to somebody, letting them take care of it. Maybe because of this pandemic that’s going to change, right? I don’t know. Time will tell.
People don’t think twice about spending $12 on a steak. But people will look at a lobster that costs $10.50 and say it’s too expensive. I think it’s a stigma—lobster is a luxury item. I don’t understand it. But then I’m not a marketing person. I just go fishing.