CAPE PORPOISE, Maine – Chipper Zeiner has been hauling American lobsters off the East Coast of the United States since 1973, when he was just 11 years old, but in recent years he has noticed a decline in the number of people taking up the practice to earn a living.
Chipper, who has about 600 pots in various sections of the waters off the coast of Maine, heads out into the Atlantic Ocean at 6 am six days a week, hauling in about 200 lobsters each day.
“You have to love it to do it. If you don’t love it you won’t be doing it for long. Many kids today won’t do it, it costs too much to get into it,” Chipper said.
He hauls the pots in four-day rotations, one at a time, checking the catch, releasing the shorts, eggers and longs, before re-baiting and moving onto the next one.
“Shorts” are less than 3.25 inches (8.26 centimeters), “eggers” are females that either have eggs or have been marked as an egg producer by another lobsterman with a “V-notch” on the tail, and “longs” are over 5 ins (12.7 cm).
Cape Porpoise, where Chipper makes his living, is part of the town of Kennebunkport, a popular tourist destination known for its lobster rolls, locally brewed beers, cold water beaches, and the summer home of former US President George H. W. Bush and his late wife, Barbara.
It is also the home port of approximately 40 lobster boats and their captains.
The American lobster has been surviving in the Atlantic Ocean for millions of years and was plentiful in the past. Native Americans used to use them as bait and fertilizer for their crops, while in colonial times, lobsters were considered to be a poor man’s food, nourishment for indentured servants and prisoners.
They are now part of a valuable commercial fishing industry that, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, netted over 69.7 million pounds (31.6 million kilograms) at a price of over 244 million US dollars (208.7 million euros) in 2008 alone.
But Chipper has noticed the number of lobstermen at Cape Porpoise has dropped significantly in the last 20 years.
Children are not taking over the family business when a parent retires and others have moved on to other ventures and the costs of the boat, license, traps, bait and fuel are not providing a significant enough return on the investment, according to Chipper.
In the harsh winter months, he repairs traps, builds new ones and looks after his gear, but “that’s the thing about lobstering, you don’t make any money unless you get out there.”
Besides the weather, there are other factors that make the job hard. There are simply less lobsters than there were in the past.
The Gulf of Maine is in the Atlantic Ocean but the Georges Bank and Browns Bank keep the water protected like two jetties under the sea, restricting the flow of the colder water.
According to the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the area is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water on the planet and that temperature change could be making it harder for the lobsters.
There has also been a rise in cases of Epizootic shell disease in the lobsters off the coast of Maine.
This disease, usually not fatal, is caused by bacteria eating away at the shell, causing lesions that make it unmarketable.
This is devastating to the fishing industry and there isn’t a known reason why this disease has become more prevalent.
The lobster fishery in Long Island Sound is plagued with the disease and the fear is it will move to the north after having already been found off the coast of Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
“When I was younger, that shore was lined with little cottages, but then big money came in and all the little houses started disappearing and them big homes started,” Chipper said. “Them folks have landscapers coming in and spraying the fertilizers and spraying for ticks.”
“That poison is flowing off them lawns and into the water here and getting at the lobsters. That’s my thinking. I pretty much only see them with the shell disease near the shore,” he added.
Despite the hardships, Chipper loves what he does: “I’m really good at feeding lobsters. My boat is paid for so I will probably do this for another 10 years or so, then maybe just haul in the summer months. I have not had another job and don’t think I ever wanted a different job.”
The recent trade war that the Trump Administration has started with China, imposing tariffs on imported goods, has backfired on the Maine Lobster industry. China has imposed a 25 percent tariff on US lobsters, as well as other US goods in response. China in recent years has been a boom for the lobster fishermen, but now they are left scrambling to find other buyers.