10 Historic Photos That Show How Maine Lobster Fishing Gear Evolved

In early colonial times, when European settlers began eating our state’s most famous shellfish, lobster fishing wasn’t difficult.

It wasn’t even fishing.

“Lobsters could be picked up along the coasts but were not highly valued as food,” wrote Nell S. Thompson in her book “Traditions and Records of Southwest Harbor and Somesville, Mount Desert Island, Maine” in 1938.

Real lobster pots did not appear until the dawn of the 19th century.

Ebenezer Thorndike of Swampscott, Massachusetts, is said to have invented the first American lobster trap in 1808. Thorndike was a cobbler who owned a fish market on the side in Charleston, Massachusetts.

The traps made Thorndike a very wealthy man, and it wasn’t long before the cobbler’s inventions made their way to Maine waters, where they’ve fueled the local economy ever since.

Today, lobster fishing technology is still in the news.

Federal fisheries regulators are currently trying to reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear for the remaining 350 right whales on the east coast, considering a 90% reduction, to comply with the Species Act in Endangered.

Local lobster boats have already modified much of their equipment in service of this effort, but even more drastic changes may be on the way.

While that’s being decided, let’s take a look at some historic photos from the Penobscot Marine Museum extensive photo collection showing Maine lobster fishing gear over the years.

wood days

A simple antique lobster buoy is engraved with the name of its owner. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

At first, traps and buoys were made of wood. A fisherman named OW Whitaker owned this weather-worn wooden buoy. Not much else is known about the artifact, according to the museum’s catalog. It would have been carved by hand, without the use of a spinning wheel, and possibly painted.

In March 1955, Carroll Thayer Berry, a painter, printmaker, and photographer from Maine, took pictures at Lee Hawkins’ sawmill somewhere on the coast. In Berry’s photos, men rough out wooden lobster buoys with a hatchet before finishing them on a fast-spinning lathe. Wood chips fly through the air and cover the ground.

The Penobscot Marine Museum holds a huge collection of works by Berrycomprising over 9,000 negatives, 4,300 prints, hundreds of slides and 28 working sketches for woodcuts and screens.

A man completes a wooden lobster buoy on a lathe in a 1955 photo by Carroll Thayer Berry. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.

Nationally known Maine photographer Kosti Ruohomaa snapped a shot of Spruce Head lobsterman Alvin Rackliffe and Rackliffe’s son lanny for a 1958 issue of Maine Coast Fisherman magazine. The couple were second and third generation lobster hunters.

In the photo, the Rackliffes look at a wooden lobster buoy sitting on a wooden rack.

Everett and his son Lanny Rackliffe pose for a photo by famed Maine photographer Kosti Ruohomaa in 1958. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

At the time, Alvin Rackliffe was a member of the new Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which has 2,300 members, which was being investigated by the FBI for price fixing. The members of the association had agreed to hang on for a week in the hope of driving up the price of lobster.

It worked.

But in the United States, the Justice Department took the fishermen to court, where a judge barred lobsters from engaging in efforts to “reduce, reduce, or limit the catch or supply of live Maine lobsters.” “.

This decree remained in force for more than 50 years. In 2010, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association fought to have the decision overturned. It was finally lifted in 2014, though the organization is still barred from anything resembling price-fixing by federal antitrust laws.

In 1958 the well-known lobster Ote Lewis of Ash Point (between Spruce Head and Owls Head in Knox County) was photographed with a wooden lobster trap for one of the National Fisherman magazines.

A wooden lobster trap with text on the side reading picture "Before the invention of wire traps, all lobsters in Maine were caught in oak traps."
Maine lobsterer Ote Lewis inspects a new double-entry trap in 1959. Lewis is one of the founders of the Maine Lobster Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

Lewis was one of the founders of the Maine Lobster Festival. In the photo, he has his hands on a new hooked double chamber trap, although it still appears to have an old-fashioned rounded top.

Wooden lobster traps were always made from oak and originally had rounded tops, maximizing volume while minimizing weight. In the days when waterlogged traps were carried by hand, this was an important consideration.

“It could be built relatively quickly by the fisherman,” reads an online exhibit at the Maritime Museum. website. “The bricks on the base ensured he landed bottom to bottom. These traps had a limited lifespan, absorbing water and being susceptible to damage from worms and other marine organisms.

Later, after the invention of mechanical transporters, weight became less of an issue and flat top traps became the norm. Flat tops were also easier to stack.

In the early 1970s, Everett L. “Red” Boutilier photographed Bremen fisherman Burt Carter. In one photo, Carter still uses a round-topped trap, and his bait barrel and boat are also made of wood. The lobster boat has installed a mechanical “pulley” trap winch.

A group next to a wooden lobster trap.
Burt Carter stands on his wooden lobster boat with trap and also wooden bait barrel in a 1970s photo by Everett L. “Red” Boutilier. With Carter are his son, Paul, and Mike Fagan and Bill Kilroy, both of Flushing, New York. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

Also pictured are Carter’s son, Paul, and two long-haired young men from New York City, one of whom is holding baitfish on a spiked “bait iron”.

Boutilier was a prolific Lincoln County freelance photographer. Born in 1918, he spent time working on some of the last east coast fishing schooners. He was also a journalist in Maine, New York, Kentucky and Florida. The Maritime Museum is in charge of The entire photographic collection of Boutiliercomprising over 15,000 negatives.

To plastic and wire

A man uses a metal lobster trap with the text on the side
A man with a ‘Betts Trap’ cap on stands with a modern wire lobster trap in the 1980s. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

Eventually, in the 1980s and 1990s, plastic and foam models replaced wooden buoys, while plastic-covered metal traps replaced traditional oak.

James Knott Sr. of Brookline, Massachusetts is credited with inventing the wire trap in 1956. They took a while to figure out, but nowadays, weighing at least 100 pounds less than a soggy wooden trap, they are the only ones to be built.

“Today’s metal lobster traps are relatively standard in shape and design, as they are mass-produced by commercial trap builders,” wrote Christina Lemieux Oragano in her 2012 book “How to Catch a Lobster in Down East Maine”.

The wooden traps were supposed to last a season or two. Wire traps can last for a decade, which can make lost “ghost gear” a permanent threat from the ocean floor.

In an undated but likely 1980s photo from the Marine Museum’s National Fisherman Collection, a man wearing a ‘Betts Trap’ cap poses with a wire trap inside what looks like a workshop.

We don’t know where the photo was taken, but it’s probably in Maine. Bett’s is a common coastal surname still associated with lobster fishing.

In another photo, dated 1981, Hugo Marconi stands in his basement studio on Badger Island in Kittery. In 1957 Marconi was granted a U.S. patent for his seven-chamber plastic lobster buoy design.

A souvenir shop in the shape of a lobster trap.
Hugo Marconi, inventor of the seven-chamber lobster buoy, stands with stacks of his plastic invention in his basement workshop on Badger Island in Kittery in 1981. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

The multiple compartments were a fail-safe design intended to keep the buoy upright even if it caused a leak in a chamber or two.

According to documents still on file at the patent office, the device was to “be formed entirely of molded plastic or similar material, in order to provide a very durable, but comparatively inexpensive buoy, specially adapted for manufacture by mass production methods.

Plastic, and now foam, buoys are also less damaging to boats and propellers when accidentally crushed.


Two unidentified men pose with a large sea turtle, likely a leatherback turtle, that died after becoming entangled in lobster fishing gear. The photo we undated. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

The Penobscot Marine Museum collection also includes unusual images related to lobster fishing gear.

An undated photo, possibly taken in the 1960s, shows two men posing with a giant sea turtle that died after being entangled in lobster fishing gear.

The antique photo speaks directly to modern conservationists’ fears of whale deaths due to the same – although no right whale deaths have ever been directly attributed to Maine’s lobster industry, nor is there has not had a documented right whale entanglement in lobster gear here since 2004.

Finally, a glass plate negative from the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company Collection shows an inventive gift shop shaped like a lobster trap near Lincolnville Beach. The image was made at the turn of the 20th century and was used to print postcards.

A Lincolnville souvenir shop shaped like a lobster trap appears on a glass plate negative used to make postcards in the early 20th century. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

The image highlights how intertwined lobsters, lobster fishing gear and tourism are in Maine and, more importantly, in the outside world’s perception of the Pine Tree State.

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