Editor's note: This is an corrected version of this column. A clarification about which types of females lobster cannot be caught or sold was made.
Eight-legged, with 21 body segments and a brain the size of a grasshopper, a lobster inhales through its legs and exhales through its head, extracting oxygen on the way through its gills.
Lobsters can smell. While officially they don't "hear," it is said that traps are usually empty on July 5, leaving many to believe lobsters hear enough to hide from the fireworks the night before.
Lobstering is the oldest continuous business in Massachusetts.
On a beautiful day in June, Jaita Richon, Michael Savoie, Adrien Hupin and I, along with our video crew, went lobstering with Geno Mondello, a Gloucester lobsterman for 43 years. You can see us pull traps, measure lobsters, even hypnotize lobsters on the video at www.gloucestetimes.com/food. Later, I interviewed Geno on shore.
Since almost nothing in the world is the same as it was 43 years ago, I asked the captain of The Western Edge to compare lobstering in 1967, when he first started with 20 lobster traps, to lobstering now. After a long pause, Geno said, "Lobstering was very romantic then; being out on the water, no traffic. Lobstering today?" — another long pause, and then — "It's too much like a business now; too much competition."
Then more silence. I was with Geno at The Dory Shop, a small wood-framed building next to the Maritime Heritage Center in Gloucester where, when he's not out on the water lobstering, Geno builds wooden dories, originally used by schooner fishermen to catch cod on the Grand Banks. In June, Gloucester hosts the International Dory Races. The morning I talked with Geno, he was working on a 19 1/2-foot double dory which was one of four commissioned by The Dory Committee for the races. The boat hung gracefully amid the dark, oily clutter of old tools like a sleek, fluid sculpture in an artist's muddle of chisels and dust. Work benches were so piled with tools I hardly found space to set down a notebook.
Geno's apprentice, Sarah Tuvim, said to me, "We just want you to make it clear that lobstering is a sustainable industry." Twenty-ish, T-shirted, pony-tailed, Sarah acts something like an agent for the industry.
To which Geno submitted, "Sarah, I want all that wood cleared out of there, OK?" pointing to a pile of scrap in a corner of the floor behind the wood stove. Geno speaks with economy, but his eyes laugh behind his glasses, and his cheeks crease with a ready smile. He sounded like he was practicing being stern, and Sarah didn't seem to notice.
Seagulls squawked from the harbor. Tourists chattered as they left the Maritime Heritage Center next door. A woman stepped into the Dory Shop doorway and waved to Geno. "Will you be here in 20 minutes to show some kids around?" she called in.
"I don't know," our lobsterman answered. I had booked Geno for an hour, so I was fairly certain, unless he left our interview up to Sarah, that he would be.
The woman just laughed, apparently familiar with his reticent humor. Geno also offers lobstering and site-seeing tours to the public. To plan a trip or for more information, call 978-879-9505.
"Lobstering today ..." Geno repeated, returning to the interview, while I returned to anticipating more sad news that indeed the entire world had been permanently altered. More lifestlyes and cultural landmarks lost, like oyster-shell driveways, rotary telephones and slow food. "Lobstering today ... " Geno said one last time, "I still get excited about it."
Geno lives in East Gloucester, 347 steps from his skiff. He can see The Western Edge, a traditional Beals Island, Maine, lobster boat, from his dining room. He has 200 traps. What's striking about that is the official limit is 880; Geno doesn't fish with more traps, although he could.
"Everyone's in a hurry," he says. "I like to take my time."
Years ago, unspoken law said that Gloucester lobstermen didn't set traps north of Salt Island or south of Kettle Island. Rockport lobstermen and Manchester lobstermen stayed on their shores, too. But, somehow over the years those unspoken laws got even more unspoken, and now everyone shares the waters.
When the Jodrey State Fish Pier opened, more dockage became available, which meant even more boats could lobster out of Gloucester Harbor.
Don't forget the fishing industry's decline, which has turned plenty of fishermen into lobstermen.
Add more traps, and take away a major fishing ground from around the two offshore liquefied natural gas facilities, one 13 miles and one seven miles off the Cape Ann coast — Excelerate, the developers of the Northeast Gateway tank, and Suez Energy North America, the developers of the Neptune project, have each paid $16 million to fishermen and lobstermen for the loss of prime fishing grounds. Geno says that's about $5,600 to $8,600 for each lobsterman to never fish in those waters again — and this means the Cape Ann waters are crowded.
Still, Geno says lobstering just keeps getting better and better; Gloucester's share of the catch last year broke records at 9 million pounds.
Many say that overfishing of cod in the 1970s, all but eliminating a serious predator, has largely contributed to the lobster industry flourishing. But, also, simple industry measures have helped: Lobstermen uniquely regulate themselves; a group of local fishermen, scientists and policy managers make up committees called Lobster Conservation Management Committees. They report to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, so local fishermen have an active voice in federal policy. This played an important role recently in preventing the waters from south of Cape Cod to South Carolina from being closed to lobstering, because in those waters the lobster population is in inexplicable decline.
But keeping in New England what is a sustainable business is simpler than that: It's illegal to take female lobsters, easily identifiable by the pair of feathery appendages closest to the body on the underside of the lobster, which are bearing eggs or have a notched tail. Lobstermen are required to notch a female's tail before they toss it back, to further distinguish a breeding female. A special door is now required in all traps that allow young lobsters to escape easily. Not only that, lobster traps are basically inefficient. It's believed that only 10 percent of lobsters who approach a trap actually enter, and 6 percent remain caught.
Take care of the mothers and children, make greed inefficient; there's a recipe for sustainability.
Toward the end of my conversation with Geno, I asked him if he liked to eat lobster and in response received the now familiar silence. I think Sarah said something about how she liked lobsters, and I said I actually prefer cod — "I make the best cod cakes!" Geno shouted. Then he went on to tell me how as soon as the weather is chilly, Saturday afternoons he lights up the wood stove in the Dory Shop and all his friends come around, strangers even wander in, and they all listen to Celtic music, or play Celtic music; Geno plays the trumpet and the guitar; his friend Peter Mullen plays the squeeze box and sings, and they always have great food around. That's when Geno makes his cod fish cakes.
The last word on lobstering from Geno Mondello is this: What a nice life it is.
Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow her blog at gloucestertimes.com/foodforthought.
A Lobsterman's Cod Cakes
makes 18 3-inch cod cakes
2 pounds of fresh cod
2 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 cup of chopped onion
1 cup of bechamel sauce
11/2 cups Progresso Italian bread crumbs (1/2 cup stirred into the meat, and one cup to roll cakes in.)
3 eggs lightly beaten, 2 to put into the mixture, and one to dip the cakes in before frying.
salt and pepper to taste
canola oil for frying
Steam the potatoes. When they are almost done, lay the cod on top and finish cooking all. Put into a bowl and mash all together.
Add the chopped onion, the bechamel sauce, two eggs, salt and pepper, and mix together.
Now add the bread crumbs, using more if the mixture is too wet, or less if it's stiff enough.
Form mixture into patties, and let sit for at least two hours.
Then dip the cakes into beaten egg, and the roll in bread crumbs.
Heat oil to medium high, and cook cakes until brown and crispy on each side, finishing in a 350 degree oven to warm all the way through.