Words by Togue Brawn
Lost and Found Lobster Tags
Understand the privilege of having direct access to Maine seafood
I deal with incoming mail like a triage nurse: I attend to the checks and any envelope that bears a “FINAL NOTICE” warning and toss the rest onto an old office chair. When the angle of repose on the mail mountain is exceeded, I address the mess strewn across the floor. I was flipping through a letter landslide when I found a parcel that warmed my heart.
Last week while playing at Higgins Beach my son (11, the one in black in the photo) and his friend found a small bit of an old lobster trap sticking out of the sand at low tide and decided to try to unbury it. While they couldn't get the whole thing out, they did dig deep enough to reveal the tag. We decided to Google the name on the tag and found your dad's obituary. It was a true gift to read about his amazing life, and we really got a sense for what a special person he must have been.
Being Mainers, we happened to have a Leatherman tool on us and were able to get the tag off the trap. We hope that it is meaningful for you, just as finding it was for us. Thanks to Google we were able to find you, too. Hoping you are well + healthy during this crazy time.
Joanna Frankel, Eli Brody (11), Eli Wentzell (10)
To explain: A trap tag is a strip of plastic that associates each trap with its owner. It helps when gear is lost or when the Maine Marine Patrol needs to enforce regulations like trap limits. In olden days, tags were affixed to traps with wire, but today’s tags are designed to loop around trap mesh: They snap together in a loop that can’t be undone unless it’s cut. When my father died while out for a morning run in 2017, I affixed one of his trap tags on my wrist as a bracelet. I’ve never taken it off.
Lobstering is an inherently dangerous job, so of course I worried something might happen to my father when he was out on the water. My mother, Pat, and I used to say “Be sure to take Prudence with you” when he’d head to his boat, a reminder to always choose safety over profits. In 2005, his boat capsized when he misgauged the breakers at the mouth of the Spurwink River. Struggling to get his boots off, he couldn’t reach the surface. As he was sinking, he thought “This isn’t so bad, but Patty’s going to be sad.” And yet, it wasn’t he who was destined to perish at sea.
Ten years later, my brother Jason was swimming off a Biddeford beach when his heart stopped. It restarted after 19 minutes of CPR, but he died three days later. It would be a year before I saw my mother smile again. We were picking wild blueberries in a field in Washington County. Somehow the alchemy of plump, powdery berries and August sunshine, with my father and me at her side, aligned to allow it.
Foraging for and prepping local food has always brought my family closer. Some of the most meaningful conversations I had with my father occurred while we stood at our dual-bay kitchen sink peeling Maine shrimp. He’d soak a tray holding 90 pounds in the bathtub for an hour to loosen the shells, and we’d spend hours more prepping them for the freezer. The seafood snob I’ve become cringes at the thought of soaking shellfish in fresh water, but when you’re a kid facing a mountain of shrimp, anything that speeds the peeling process is a godsend. A couple hours’ work yielded 40 bags of translucent pink deliciousness to be fried, baked, stuffed, or bathed in butter for months to come.
As a kid, I took delicious seafood for granted. I now realize having access to it is a privilege, even here in coastal Maine. In Tenants Harbor just last December, a Subaru pulled up to my Downeast Dayboat seafood van and its driver asked for steamers (softshell clams). That same afternoon, a Sorrento fisherman’s eyes lit up when he saw tubs of crabmeat stacked next to my scale. How is it that residents of Tenants Harbor can’t find clams and Sorrento fishermen can’t find fresh crabmeat? We’re in Maine: Everyone should have access to great local seafood.
The COVID crisis highlights that our national food distribution system, designed to deliver cheap food quickly, is poorly suited to handle top-quality foods from small producers like Maine fishermen. But of course, the problem existed before the pandemic. I started my business 10 years ago to provide Maine scallops to market shelves far and wide, differentiating them as the vastly superior product they are. Maine waters produce better-tasting scallops than anywhere in the world, and our boats bring small quantities of them ashore very quickly. But until the late 1990s, Maine’s premium scallops were trucked out of state and mixed with generic scallops from the federal fishery, where boats are at sea for a week or more and their catches get bloated with melting ice. It was a situation akin to pouring a bottle of Dom Pérignon into a vat of Two-Buck Chuck. Maine fishermen deserve a better price for their premium product, and consumers should know what scallops are supposed to taste like.
People should also be privy to where their seafood comes from, so I label each bag of scallops with the name of the fisherman and their boat, plus the scallop harvest date and area. During the first lockdown this time last year, when so many people felt alone and afraid, I started including a personal note, too. The value of these personal connections is realized by both recipient and sender.
Which brings me back to my letter from Joanna. The tag her son found was lost over 20 years ago, so it bears my father’s name, not simply the identification number that modern tags hold. No one who risks their life to bring seafood to your plate deserves to be just another number. Our meals would be far richer if we strengthened the connection between food producers and consumers. The next time you purchase seafood, ask the seller the name of the fisherman who reeled it in. If they can’t tell you, look to buy elsewhere.