“The price can go from $1.75 a pound to as high as $3.75,”says Jack Daigle. “The price is lower during the period from July until September, because that is when the supply is the greatest. You see the price rise dramatically in November. It’s all a seasonal market.”
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The seasonal nature of the lobster fishery is a result of the animal’s shell more than of anything else. The lobster, like insects, is possessed of an exoskeleton; whereas creatures with internal skeletons gain weight by accruing bulk around their skeletons, the lobster does so by growing inside its skeletal structure. (It is hard to say which is the more convenient.)
When a lobster outgrows a skeleton, it molts. The process is controlled by a gland that seems to retard the molting process until just when the creature’s metabolism indicates that the shell should be shed. “We don’t know exactly how,”says John Hughes, chief of the state’s Division of Marine Fisheries and director of its Lobster Hatchery, on Martha’s Vineyard, “but this gland just shuts down.”
Recent studies have indicated that the lobster is a migratory animal. In the spring, the mature lobsters are drawn by the warmer water into inshore areas. “On their way in in the spring they shed,”says one lobsterman. “Then they hide in the rocks until their shell becomes hard. When they come out, their body weight has to be brought up to fill the new shell. They really forage. They’re pretty hungry.”
With all this activity in the spring and summer, the lobsters are drawn to traps like Frank Sampuco’s. “It’s a lot more exciting when you’re catching the things,”he said as the Maureen jounced over the wake of a commuter ferry from the South Shore. He backed the boat’s engines, approaching a line of traps he had set three days earlier. The ends of the string were marked with blue-and-white striped bleach bottles, each of which was marked with the number 1989, the last four digits of Sampuco’s Social Security number. If these markers somehow became detached, Sampuco could grapple up his traps by aligning the boat with predetermined bearing points, in this case a red channel buoy and the smokestack on the UMass-Columbia Point campus.
The mechanics of the job have not changed much since Frank’s family first took to the lobster beds. Hydraulic gear now pulls up the trap-string, but Frank’s father used to have to haul up 100-odd traps by hand. “If you have to talk about where the real progress in the industry has been made,”says one lobsterman, “all you’ve got to do is look at nylon. Nylon ropes and plastic traps. The old hemp rope only had a brief life span. You could only run maybe 15 traps at a time because you couldn’t keep them up.”
The Sampucos had only 350 traps set this day. At the peak of the season, the number will double. As Frank aligns the Maureen with the buoy and the smokestack, Andrew reaches out with an ancient hockey stick to which has been affixed a hook and snags the line attached to the bleach bottle. The line is run through the hydraulic winch, and the traps begin to break the surface.