Listen to today’s news in Maine and you’ll hear about an ongoing dispute between our state and Canada, a disagreement over lobster that has folks on both sides of the border seeing red.
Vicki Doudera here, wondering this: what it is about our famed crustacean that causes such negative behaviors? Not just gluttony (think about all those tourists devouring butter-soaked forkfuls for hours at a time) but arguments, vandalism, and even violence?
Maine lobster is inexpensive right now, and its cheapness is the root cause of this recent international kerfuffle. Record catches of early soft shells (due in part, say fishermen, to warmer waters, fewer predators, and stringent conservation measures) mean that our lobster prices are at a 35-year low. Processing plants in Canada are importing the lower-priced catch from us, and their actions have made fishermen in New Brunswick boiling mad.
Emotions are so high that hundreds of lobstermen to the Great White North have taken to the streets, and their picketing’s brought the Canadian lobster meat-processing industry to a grinding halt. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene, warning that “acts of intimidation, violence, or coercion” from Canadian protesters could no longer be tolerated.
This episode is just the latest in a long list of lobster incidents. In May, the sinking of two lobster boats in tiny Friendship brought back memories of 2010, when hostilities were especially high.
On remote Matinicus Island, part of the county where I live, a dispute over lobster traps led one fisherman to fire a handgun at two other fishermen, hitting one in the neck. Two weeks later, someone sabotaged two lobster boats and damaged a third in Owls Head, the little town just south of Rockland with a lovely lighthouse and generally peaceful people. That summer was rife with complaints over cut trap lines and lost gear.
Lobstermen are notoriously solitary and territorial, with livelihoods depending on resourcefulness and independence. They are the first to admit that their ilk are unusually contentious, that there have been feuds between lobstermen ever since there’s been a lobster industry. Linda Greenlaw, writing in her 2002 book The Lobster Chronicles, describes how “gear wars” can quickly escalate to extreme violence.
For Maine writers of crime, this conflict bubbles with plot ideas. My fourth Darby Farr, due to come out in April, opens with the weathered Carlene Ross checking her traps in the icy waters off Hurricane Harbor. She’s ornery, proud, and protective of her catch – until she brings it over the boards and sees what she’s snagged.
Lobstering is a dangerous business, made even more precarious by some of the people involved. Can you think of other professions that provoke such high emotions? Have you used lobstering to create tension in your fiction, or read a particularly good depiction of the industry somewhere else?