Lobstering Basics - History
You are invited to scroll through an historic timeline of the lobster industry in Maine (below). Along the way, the Lobster Institute highlights milestones of the American lobster industry from its start in the 1600’s to present day. You’ll find out when the first lobster catch was recorded and learn what a lobster “smack” is. You’ll read about the first lobster fishing regulations and what the catch has been like for the past fifty years.
The Lobster Institute hopes you enjoy learning about these milestones of Maine’s lobster industry. This historical timeline was put together to compliment our ongoing oral/video history project.
As part of this project, we have been videotaping interviews with some of the more seasoned lobstermen and others in lobstering communities in order to capture and retain the spirit of the people and families who have made lobstering in Maine a way of life through the generations. Their relationships with the sea, their boats and traps, and the lobster itself have, quite without their intent and beyond their control, created legend and lore that have made lobstering a cultural icon for Maine. The people who work the coastal fisheries are, in essence, a community unto themselves. Recording the stories of today’s most veteran lobstermen and their families will strengthen and preserve a special piece of this unique Maine community’s culture and rich maritime tradition. Once completed, the project promises to educate, enlighten, and entertain.
The Lobster Institute is available to present this historical timeline to classes or groups – complete with video clips and historic photos. For more information about this project or other research, educational or outreach activities of the Lobster Institute, please contact us.
Milestones of the Maine Lobster Industry: An Historical Timeline
- 1605 — First recorded lobster catch. Lobsters were plentiful in the 1600-1700s. They were often considered a paupers food. There are even stories of indentured servants having it written into their contracts that they could not be served lobster more than twice a week.
- Late 1700s — Lobster “smacks” were introduced and the industry began in earnest. These custom-made boats, with open holding wells on deck, allowed live lobsters to be shipped. Captain E.M. Oakes from Harpswell was one of the earliest smackmen in Maine. Smacks were used well into the 1900s. Click here for an article by Arthur Woodward entitled “Lobsters: A 1950s Trip in a Lobster Smack” (PDF)
- 1828s — Maine passed a law banning out-of-state lobstermen.
- 1842 — Lobster canning started in Eastport, Maine by a Mr. U. S. Treat, expanding the market. In 1843 a one pound can (meat from 3 ½ pounds of live lobster) sold for 5 cents.
- 1850s — Lathe pots replace hoop nets – followed in 1930s by wooden parlor traps. Wooden parlor traps were the forerunners of today’s wire parlor traps. Wooden traps had to be taken out of the water for several months at a time for repairs – now many fish year round since wire traps are more durable.
- 1872 — First law banning taking of egg-bearing females …a conservation measure already practiced by many Maine lobstermen at the time.
- 1874 — First laws regulating minimum size of lobster. The first minimum size was 10 ½ inches overall size. This doomed the canners who basically went out of business by 1885. Maine’s minimum size today is 3 ¼ inches and the maximum is 5 inches.
- 1875 — Tidal lobster pounds were introduced as a way to store live lobsters for future sale during times of peak demand.
- 1910 — Engines began replacing most sails and oars in lobster boats – hydraulic haulers were introduced in 1950s.
- Early 1900s — Landings in the U.S. were very low. Fishermen often had to find other ways to supplement their income in these days. There were plenty of rumors about lobstermen turning to rum–running along the Maine coast during prohibition days.
- Late 1920s— According to Robert Joyce, who lobstered out of Swans Island, when he started fishing in the late 1920s:
- bait cost 10 cents a bushel (now it’s over $14)
- he got 10-14 cents a pound for his lobsters.
- 1940s — A company called LobLure began research on alternative lobster bait. Early alternatives included sanitary napkins soaked in herring oil to kerosene soaked bricks. Herring is the most popular bait today with between 700-800 million lbs. used per year in the U.S. and Canada. Alternative bait studies continue to this day – on everything from cowhide to soybeans.
- Landings began to increase
- Co-ops were introduced: The first co-ops in Maine were in Boothbay, Pemaquid, and Stonington.
- The Maine Lobstermen’s Association was organized: Leslie Dyer of Vinalhaven was the MLA’s first president.
- 1950s — Offshore lobstering becomes more prevalent. Today most lobstering is still done inshore by individual boat owners. Offshore lobstering brought in about 20% of the catch at its peak and today accounts for about 10% of landings.
- 1970s — Wire-mesh traps introduced.
- 1977 — Largest lobster, according to Guiness Book of World Records, caught off Nova Scotia. It was listed as 44 lbs 6 oz with a length, from the tip of its tail to the tip of its crusher claw, at 3 ½ feet.
- 1987 — Lobster Institute formed. The Institute was started by industry associations in partnership with the University of Maine. The Lobster Institute’s core functions include communications, outreach, research and educational programming.
- 2010 — Largest U. S. lobster catch-116,248,149 pounds. Valued at over $399 million. (most recent data)
- 2011 — Largest Maine lobster catch – Nearly 103.9 million pounds. Valued at over $331 million.