In Appreciation Of The Iconic Lobsterman & His Lobster: Long Island Reflections

Dedicated To The Ocean: The Lobstermen Of Long Island

The lobster and the iconic lobsterman of the Long Island Sound, an inlet bounded by New York City at its western point. A reflection of praise and admiration for the lobstermen of Long Island and a lifestyle that I was connected to daily in my past. The dedication of a career as a lobsterman, trapping and pulling these glorious crustaceans from the Long Island Sound. The life of a lobsterman is a way of life and a heritage in its own right. The love of the waters is perhaps what drives them as independent entrepreneurs in unpredictable waters with the seasonal fishing season of lobsters…of course, this was all before the infamous great “Lobster Die-Off” of 1999

Clawed lobsters comprise a family known as Nephropidae or Homaridae, of large marine crustaceans and are found in all oceans and live on rocky, sandy or muddy bottoms from the shoreline to beyond the continental shelf. Burrowed under rocks and crevices, these bilaterally symmetrical, blue-blooded invertebrates have a hard protective exoskeleton. The fossil record of clawed lobsters stretch back to the Valanginian Age of the Cretaceous, approximately 140-136 millions of years ago. What a history. Interestingly, lobsters molt in order to grow and change color during the process. There are actually 3 different types of lobsters: New-Shell, Hard-Shell and Old-Shell. The New Shell lobsters are delicate and have paper thin shells and little meat, however, the meat is extremely sweet. Hard-Shell lobsters can survive shipping thus command a higher price. The meat, however, is not as sweet. Old-Shell lobsters have a coarser flavor and can be air-shipped anywhere in the world , making them the most expensive of all the lobsters. In fact, the larger the lobster, the older it is! Interestingly, most Long Island lobsters that come from the Sound are 2 pounds or under. Why, you ask, do they turn red when you cook them? These sea creatures contain a red-colored molecule that appears when cooked. Lobsters are omnivores with 10 walking legs, of which the front pairs bear claws which assist as they scavenge on fish, other crustaceans, worms and other plant life.

The Great, Esteemed Lobster…

The lobster fishing season, May through December, is marked with risks, diligence hard work and resolve. The preparation at the start of the season includes not only readying the boats and gear stored at the local boatyard, but the tasks of cleaning, repairing the boats, traps, ropes and buoys to catch these nocturnal, bottom dwelling-crustaceans. Of interest, commercial lobster fisheries flourished only after the development of what is known as the ‘lobster smack’, a custom-made boat with open holding wells on the deck to keep the lobsters alive during transport. Coated in their rubber boots and rubber bib, lobstermen are said to have a language all their own. Who knew that a lobster is called a ‘pistol’, ‘dummy’ or ‘cull’ when it has no claws? The traps, wooden or made of wire are called ‘pots’ and are filled with luring bait suspended in a mesh bag, set in 30 feet to over 200 feet of water. A traps position is marked by a floating wood or styrofoam buoy that holds the line leading down to the trap. Interestingly, each lobster fisherman has his own unique color code for his buoys. By law, no two are alike! Who knew? Color combinations may be the same, but patterns and designs must be different. Arriving at a buoy, the fisherman ‘gaffs’ the line with a hooked pole and passes over a pulley through a hydraulic winch. After raising the trap to the edge, or ‘gunwhale’ of the boat, the lobsterman opens the trap and removes the lobsters, measures each lobster carefully and returns to the waters any that are too big or too small, or ‘berried’ (pregnant) females. Of note, female lobsters can lay between 5,000 and 160,00 eggs. Wow! The trap, once emptied, is then re-baited and sent to the depths at the bottom of the ocean… the life of a lobsterman in established routines, indeed. The claws of the lobster are then banded in strong rubber bands using a special tool to safely slip over the claws. Why are lobsters banded? For certain, there must be an element of safety from the grip of their claws (chelipeds), but it is said that when crowded into tight quarters, lobsters become cannibalistic… so that is why! It is said that years ago, wooden or plastic pegs inserted into the base of the claws were used which broke the protective skin of the lobster, allowing bacteria to enter. Thus, the rubber band created a solution! In addition, there are right handed and left handed lobsters! Some have their crusher claw on the right, and some have it on their left. Again, who knew?

The three boats in the compilation above are lobster boats from the Northport Harbor. A daily iconic feature at dockside. Departing before sunrise, they would pull into the harbor and moor the boats after filling and hauling hundreds of traps each day. Typically, lobster boats have a crew of two, although larger boats have three and smaller boats may be handled by only one lobsterman. It is the captain of the boat that makes the decisions and bears the consequences of those decisions on the waters they source. Unforseen weather conditions and tragedies at sea confirm the risks of this career. It is said that lobstering is still largely made up of family ventures, even though it had grown into a huge industry. In some cases, the historic way of life is passed from generation to generation and is layered in pride on Long Island, again, that was all before the infamous great “Lobster Die-Off” of 1999….

Long Island, New York

The weathered and worn faces of these iconic lobsterman who journey into the Long Island Sound are the lobstermen that I recall. I grew up in the Village of Northport, circa 1900, on the North Shore of Long Island (about 40 miles east of midtown Manhattan). I worked for 7 years (high school through College Summers) at a small, thirteen table seafood restaurant, “Sea Shanty”. It was here that I saw the life of a lobsterman firsthand. The restaurant’s local source for lobsters was through “John, the lobsterman”, as he was referred to. A sun-beaten and smiling lobsterman that daily dredged ashore in his lobster boat and from the dock to the restaurant, visible and in walking distance, just off the Northport Harbor, he arrived at the restaurant with his day’s catch of fresh, live lobsters. Fresh from the Long Island Sound, a daily score of culinary crustaceans. One pound and one 1/4 pounds. Not large, but still, absolutely delicious when cooked and soaked in hot clarified butter. My recollections of entering the restaurants “walk-in” cooler still are vivid in my memory. The sound of the banded lobsters climbing over each other’s shells with their antenae moving every which way, I will never forget. Their fate? The anticipating appetites of the guests that often lined up outside this small landmark restaurant. Often, the guests moored their large boats and paddled to shore in their small dinghy boats. Their destination was fresh seafood found in a casual environment. Long Island charm and fresh local seafood at its best. I must mention that beyond the allure of the Sea Shanty, and the multitude of local seafood establishments, our family often ventured towards Montauk, Long Island. On our journey we would always stop at the Lobster Roll in Amagansett off Montauk Highway. The casual and ‘beachy’ ocean side setting, nestled among the sand dunes off the beach and covered in screened porches and outdoor tables. The buttery rolls stuffed generously with cold lobster salad paired with a heaping cluster of hot french fries is a savoring memory I will never forget. One of the many culinary joys of Long Island, indeed…

I left Long Island in 1991, still at the height of the lobster bounty and the glory days for the lobster trade. It has been 13 years since the Long Island Sound and its lobstermen and the local industries were plunged into shock. In fact, lobster populations all across Southern New England have been affected. An estimated nine-tenths of the lobster population was wiped out. The 1999 lobster crash turned out dead, or limp and deformed lobsters that lost their feisty fight in the waters that contained them. There is no definitive answer on what has devastated the lobster population on the Long Island Sound, but scientists point to global warming affecting the lower waters where lobsters live, adding stress to the lobster, as they have no way of cooling themselves. It is also thought that the remnants of Hurricane Floyd in September of 1999, flushed pesticides into the Long Island Sound. Predator fish are also said to have made an impact by eating young lobsters. However the decline happened, the commercial lobster fishing industry in Long Island may be doomed, indeed. Alas, many of the lobstermen have moved on to other industries with this unfortunate situation not showing any signs of returning to the glory days of the lobster fisherman. It is said that anyone that ‘lobsters’ in the Long Island Sound now is part time now. Since September 1999, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and Long Island Sound lobstermen have developed regulations and programs in hopes of rebuilding the lobster fishery industry. Apparently, little success has been made in increasing the lobster numbers. Sadly, in late 2013, the Long Island Sound will be closed to lobster fishing for the first time in its history in what is known as a “Lobster Fishing Ban”, as regulators try the most severe series of “measures to rebuild a severely depleted stock“. It is feared that the infrastructure of lobstering in the Sound will be gone, and that Maine and Nova Scotia will then control the lobster market and prices will skyrocket. As the lobstermen beckon “Please, don’t close the Sound up”, I harken back to the glory days that I witnessed that these iconic men flourished in. The glory days of the Long Island Lobster

The Fruit Of The Ocean: The Lobster

Interestingly, many years ago, lobsters were not considered good eating. History states that they were so plentiful after a large storm that they would wash up on the shore. Collected, they were used for fertilizer in gardens or as fish bait! Again, who knew? Imagine!! In North America, the American lobster did not become popular until the end of the 19th century, when New Yorkers and Bostonians developed a taste for this culinary pride of the oceans. It is said that prior to this time, lobster was considered a mark of poverty or as a food for servants or other lower members of society in Maine, Massachusetts and Canada. My, how opinions have changed!! It was only during the 20th century that lobster became viewed more highly. Indeed, lobster is still one of the few foods that is deemed exotic and elusive. As a side note, who knew that the small ocean side clapboard fisherman shacks built for shelter would be replaced by mansions of their own iconic status? Alas, back to the lobster! Culinary delights with lobster include the infamous Lobster Newberg and Lobster Thermidor. In addition, lobster is used in many other savory dishes including soups, bisques and the mouth watering lobster roll. A bit of heaven, indeed, whether boiled, steamed or broiled. And of the shack-like stops on the side of the highways of Long Island, leading out to the Hamptons and beyond? Pure heaven for those that delight in fresh seafood. Oh, in appreciation of the ‘lobster rolls’ of my youth, captured in my mind, overflowing on a doughy bun with mounds of Long Island lobster mixed with perfect combination of vegetable crunch. Heaven. Add cole slaw and lemon? The perfect equation of a hot summer day…

Cheers to the Long Island lobstermen of years prior to 1999…and to those that await the regulations of their ban from the sound? I applaud you, and wait with you for the return to better days when a lobster eaten on Long Island is from Long Island!

Kristin

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6 thoughts on “In Appreciation Of The Iconic Lobsterman & His Lobster: Long Island Reflections

    1. Thank you so much for your compliments! Paired with the fact that this subject is close to my heart and the wealth of information available on the web, I was eager to compile this post and share the story. Thank you sharing! Please stop by again!
      Kristin

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