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Welcome to the very first edition of The Maine Thing Quarterly. When deciding what to cover first, we did a little word association. We all unanimously concluded that if one were to say “Maine,” it wouldn’t be difficult to predict the first word that would pop into your head.
(Drum roll, please)
Lobster. (Or “lobstah,” depending on where you come from.)
It’s inevitable really: In nearly every way, Maine is lobster. Lobster is the backbone of our economy; it’s the livelihood for multitudes of fishermen, who depend on the daily catch to make their living. And you can’t go far in Maine without seeing a T-shirt or a handbag with a lobster on it.
But above all, lobster is delicious food—a delicacy to be enjoyed at the most decadent of gourmet restaurants and at the unassuming roadside eatery, where the lobster rolls are infused with extraordinary love.
But what makes it a real Maine lobster?
The authentic Maine lobster has five sets of legs and two large claws (watch your fingers)—one claw is known as the crusher claw and the other is the smaller pincer claw. These crustaceans live and thrive in the cold water along the Atlantic Coast. And, while you will find them as far north as Canada and as far south as North Carolina, nearly half the catch originates in Maine. Chances are the lobster you ordered was born and raised right here.
Lobstermen, as you’d expect, have an incredible dedication to their work. In a lot of ways, it’s not just a job. It’s a way of life many lobstermen are born into. They work extraordinarily hard; with the majority of lobster harvesting done from June through December. Hey, tourists have to eat, right?
Maine lobster knows no season; lobstermen work year-round in the extreme cold of winter and the sweltering heat of summer. In winter and spring, the harvesters are catching mostly a hard-shell lobster. June is the start of the season for soft-shell lobsters, when adult lobsters molt. They are also commonly called “shedders” or “shedder lobsters.” Soft-shell lobsters are prized for their sweet flavor, tender texture and easy-to-crack shell and are favored by locals. The hard-shell variety are far and above the most popular due to their year-round availability.
To ensure that availability, the State of Maine goes to great lengths to see that the lobster population stays strong. Thanks to strict governance, the coast of Maine has become one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world. The coast is divided into seven “zones,” each led by a council that oversees the rules. Every lobster, when caught, is measured—the body must be between 3.75 and 5 inches or you have to throw it back. Lobster traps have to be built so smaller lobsters can escape. And every female carrying eggs must be notched with a “V” and then returned to the sea.
This type of regulation is essential, because the lobster industry is a dynamic and integral part of Maine. Economically speaking, it has a huge impact on the state. In 2012 alone, over 126 million pounds of lobster were caught, valued at over $338 million. The lobster industry spreads across many different businesses, including processors, dealers, boat makers, retailers and restaurants, among numerous others. In other words, that crusher claw has a pretty profound effect on everything it touches.
It’s an effect that has been felt since the very first commercial lobster fishery in Maine was started in 1840. No wonder it is difficult to imagine Maine without lobster. And Maine has them in all shapes and sizes—lobsterman Herman Coombs has seen them all. But as he so eloquently says, “The funny ones don’t taste any different, they all cook up orange.” They sure do.