Personal Stories of America at Work

The Salty Lobsterman

Lobster trapper Paul Rosen handles trawls and brawls to bring home the crustacean

"My favorite part of the job is that I am not bound by four walls."

“I associate lobster with fancy restaurants and expensive bills. Historians among us know this crustacean was originally a poor man’s meal in the early years of the colonies. But what about those peoplepredominantly menwho still fish for lobster in today’s economy and earn a living catching these little critters in their traps along the northeastern shore? Paul Rosen is one of those men. When I met with him in Provincetown, he struck me as a modern-day Popeye with burly forearms covered in tattoos and a deep voice scratchy from years of cigarettes.”

- Managing Editor and Chronicler Molly Rosen

Haulin’ my trawls

My typical day is waking up around 4:30 and grabbing my bait from the cutting house—fish skins, salmon heads, and the like. I use about 300 pounds of bait a day. Occasionally I use skate for bait if I can’t get my skins. I don’t really care for skate though, because they smell really, really bad. A large softball-sized mesh bag of fish skins goes into the trap. We haul the trap, take out what’s in there, re-bait, and set it back. If the fishing isn’t good in the area, I’ll pick up my gear and move to where I think the lobsters may be.

I start fishing in April or May. I put out 800 traps. I fish in trawls—a line of nine to eighteen traps strung along more than 1,000 feet of rope. Every time we haul a trawl, all that rope comes up on the boat and gets arranged on the back deck in a certain way so that the traps don’t get all twisted up.

A weird thing happens down below on the ocean floor. When I put down a trap, first the crabs come in, poke around, do their business, and move out. Then the lobsters move in. The lobsters are usually the last creepy-crawlies to come into my trap. It usually takes two to three days. The trap soaks for another day or two, and then I haul it up and take them all out. I throw the crabs overboard unless I’m selling them too.

An expensive business

I came out to Cape Cod Bay around 1995 from California. I knew the fishing was good here. In the beginning I fished on different boats—a tuna boat, a gill net boat. I was lobstering, too. After four years I decided to buy my own permit. I thought, why shouldn’t I get the lion’s share? I found a guy in Marshfield who was willing to sell his state and federal permit to me.  That’s the only way you can get one these days ’cause they don’t issue new ones anymore.

I built my own boat (actually the third one I’ve built) and named it the Morgan Gayle after my two nieces. All told, I’ve invested about $250,000 in the boat, traps, rope, buoys, high fliers, insurance, dockage, and bait. Lobstering is an expensive business, and you have to have some money to start fishing. I borrowed sixty grand and took the rest out of my pocket. I didn’t have enough money for new traps, so I started by buying some used ones from a friend of mine. Now I build my own. Over time, the lobsters rip the nets apart. The conger eels get in and break them too. The traps need constant maintenance. I plug away at them during the winter.

Still like the Wild West out here

My favorite part of the job is that I am not bound by four walls. In the morning, I leave the harbor and hear the low rumble of the engine and the water splashing and feel the cold spray in my face. I love the anticipation of what I’m going to have in my trap—what I’m going to catch, and how much. Last week, I hauled a string that had 400 pounds of lobster. I can’t wait to get back to that string of gear. I want to see if they’re still there. Since lobsters move around, I try to think about where they’re going, the temperature of the water, and whether the bottom I’m fishing on is rocky, muddy, sandy, or covered with a seaweed bed. At certain times of year, lobsters like different types of ocean bottom.

Sure, I’ve had another lobsterman pick up my traps, and not by accident. These things don’t happen by accident. It creates quite a rift. Lobstermen usually agree about one thing, and that’s to disagree about everything. There is a lot of fighting on the docks. “You set your gear over me.” “You hauled my gear.” A lot of it is just knuckleheads. We’re all alpha males. Usually there’s a screamin’ match and then one guy will move his gear.

It’s a federal offense to touch another man’s traps. There was a fisherman who got mad for some reason, and he had a dragger that drags a net around. He went down into where we catch lobster, but where there’s no fish. He put out his outriggers, which are the boat’s stabilizers. Then he dragged through a bunch of lobstermen’s gear, and pulled it up and cut the lines. Another lobsterman got a picture of it. The guy ended up getting fined about $15,000 for that little tirade he had. Nobody helps him now. If he was sinking, I’d come help him, but that’s about it. Don’t ask me for anything. Don’t talk to me, don’t even look at me.

The Marine Fisheries make the rules for us, and unfortunately, they’re really not in touch with what’s going on in the ocean. This year we have mandatory catch reports. Every day we fish, we have to file a report. It didn’t used to be that way; before, we’d tell them at the end of the year how much gear we had in the water and how much we caught. Now it’s what area we fished, when we left the dock, how many pounds we caught, who we sold it to, how many traps we had in the water, how long the soak was. What’s the point? I think it’s just more information to shut down the fishing.

Fishermen in general are known to be a rough bunch. They drink and do drugs. As an outsider coming in here, I had to be really tough. A lot of guys tried to push me around. “You shouldn’t be fishing here. You’re not from here. You have no right to be here.” I said, “Oh, yeah? Then come here and come tell me to move. We’ll see what happens.” I stand my ground, and then they back off. If you take a step backward, they’ll take a step forward. If you take a step forward, there’s either going to be a fight, or they’re going to back off. If someone’s going to push me around, I’m going to push back harder. That’s the reality. It’s still kind of like the Wild West out here.

The harder you go, the more you catch

To be successful, you can’t be intimidated by anyone or anything, and you need to be strong and willing to work really hard. And you’ve got to be smart about fishing. You can’t just dump traps in the water and expect to catch lobsters. They don’t jump up into the boat.

I’ve been doing this for ten years now. I’m proud of landing 600 pounds of lobster in one day. That’s about $3,000 to $3,500 for a day. That’s a big day. An average day for me is between 250 to 400 pounds. Some guys that go out, they only have 300 to 400 traps. They’ll haul eighty traps and be happy with 120 pounds. But I have a family to feed. The harder you go, the more you’re going to catch. There’s a huge range in how much a lobsterman makes. There are guys who have 300 traps who also have other jobs. If they catch 8,000 to 10,000 pounds, they make about $40,000 to $50,000 over the summer. I try to double that, maybe 20,000 pounds of lobster, which is about $100,000 gross. But I’ve got to pay my insurance, my dockage for my boat, my mortgage, bait, fuel, oil, and the mate. That takes quite a big chunk. My mate gets paid a share of everything that comes onto the boat.

One wrong step and it’s all over

It’s also pretty dangerous out here. There’s a lot of heavy metal flying around in a boat that’s rocking around all the time. And there’s a lot of rope. You don’t want to get your feet or your hands or any part of you caught. No jewelry on your hands, your neck or anything. You have to know where your feet are at all times. There’s a guy who was killed by getting his foot caught in the rope—it’s called “getting caught in the bite.” If your foot is caught in a loop with a trawl going out, there is no way you’re going to get out. You’re dragged down and you drown, pulled down 130 feet of water in about 30 seconds by the weight of the rope and traps. One guy was working on his engine while it was running, and he got his shirt caught in the shaft. It just destroyed him—ripped him to pieces. Happened right here in Provincetown. Guys have had fingers ripped off, too—one wrong step, and it’s all over. But I have it down pretty much to a science. Do your safety checks. Make sure your mate knows what to do if you go overboard and vice versa. Have a plan. Fish smart. Try not to be reckless. That will generally get you home every night.

I have never seen a lobsterwoman. I heard that they exist, but it’s unusual. Not to put down women, but you have to be strong. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. I’m forty-five years old, and I’m sore at the end of the day. Every trap comes over the rail and then down the rail and then to the back deck. Over and over and over again, all day long. Unfortunately, sometimes I’m just changing the water in my traps. It’s exhausting. Whether I’m catching lobsters or not, it’s the same amount of work.

There are quite a lot of father-son partnerships. I ask myself if I would want my son to become a lobsterman. It’s not an easy life, not an easy job, and I would never push it on anyone. But if the Marine Fisheries leave us alone, it’s still a viable industry. You can make a pretty decent living at it. He’d need to go get an education first, but then if he wants to come back and go fishing, I wouldn’t try to talk him out of it.

Do I like lobster? Aw, it’s okay. I eat about two lobsters a year. I’ve had my two already, so I won’t have any more this season.

thumb_mollyrosen2 Molly Rosen | November 07, 2010 | Fishing, Small business | 11

11 Responses to The Salty Lobsterman

  1. caleb says:

    can you believe it?
    250-400 pounds of lobster a day and he only eats 2 a year?

  2. Vicki says:

    I’ve been reading “At Home” by Bill Bryson, and he mentions how lobsters were so plentiful back in the day that they weren’t delicacies — instead they were fed to orphans and prisoners or ground up into fertilizer! Guess things have changed …

    Nevertheless, it seems like a tough life.

  3. Ron Henderson says:

    I worked on a lobster boat as a young guy during the summer in Annisquam Mass. Tough work – out at 4am, back late, dog tired. I have great respect for those who still do this, those that “go down to the sea in ships. ” god bless you and keep you safe. I will enjoy my two lobsters a year, and think of your hard work to make it so.


    • molly says:

      And they work equally hard whether they are catching lobsters or water in their traps (and only getting paid for the lobsters!) It’s one way to get some strong forearms though…

  4. Jim Tracy says:

    Bless you Paul! And keep yourself and your family safe.

  5. Claire Wagner says:

    I love the comparison to the Wild West. “Don’t ask me for anything. Don’t talk to me, don’t even look at me.” That’s amazing in an era when the rest of us are talking about co-opetition, better business and online etiquette, etc. And I’m impressed that someone would choose this life over anything else in sunny California.

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  7. janet drohan says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Paul……..Helps to understand your bubbly and salty smile and personality!…Stay careful and safe…….

  8. Shari says:

    Thanks for sharing, Paul. I see you are still the smart, systematic, and clever guy I dated in high school! Chris O is a lobster fisherman here in SD. I know it’s hard work, but you two sure do belong on the water, no matter which coast it is! Enjoy your holidays! ps….. quit smoking before too long! :) XO

  9. howard kline says:

    Dear Paul,
    nice article, KEEP FISHING, I had a 20 foot novi
    skiff in 1971, 75 traps and 6 flounder nets, I could
    stock 7,000 cash a year, permit was about 35 dollars
    a year, no record keeping, lots of fun little compatition, lots of drinking! LOL
    all my best,

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