July 25, 2021

History, humor flavor ‘Lobster War’

THE GREAT LOBSTER WAR, by Ron Formisano, U.Mass. Press, Amherst, Mass., 1997, 150 pages, $35 cloth, $14.95 paper.

To the world at large, the celebrated Maine lobster is a minor source of protein; along the Maine coast, where thousands of people make their living, or part of their living, through lobster fishing, or from one of the attendant businesses associated with the fishing industry, any perceived threat to the lobstering way of life is headline news.

Witness the recent skirmishes over the lobster fishing rights around Monhegan Island. While this controversy pits Monhegan fishermen against a few fishermen from Friendship, and may or may not evolve into a “war,” there was a time in 1957-58 when all of Maine’s lobstermen were involved in a battle for their livelihoods as recounted in “The Great Lobster War” by Ron Farmisano. This war involved the fishermen vs. the lobster dealers over the low price of 30 cents a pound then being set and paid by most dealers.

Formisano is a professor of history at the University of Florida who spends his summers on Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. He begins his informative and enjoyable book with the romantic image of “the lobster fisherman as rugged individualist.”

He writes: “There are few things more graceful than a Maine lobster boat with a curl of blue and white water at its prow. The hull’s profile announces its descent from the sailing sloops first used for commercial lobstercatching in the early 1800s, and its broad beam steadies a working platform for hard and sometimes dangerous work. Harmonious blends of form and function, Maine lobster boats cut through choppy waters with ease. During the course of a workday, they can crawl steadily as traps are hauled or set (thrown over), they can circle buoys in tight, clean arcs, or they can steam rapidly across open water to new fishing grounds.”

The book is much more than a history; it’s about “the power and contractions of American individualism” and it is also a clear examination of how lobster fishing has changed and why, and yet how some things haven’t changed. Formisano also does a good job comparing and contrasting the romance with the reality of the occupation.

“The independence of lobster fishermen is real,” the author says. “They can indeed decide for themselves whether to work on a given day; they spend seemingly infinite stretches of time on the water, working alone, or with one helper (a sternman — often now, two sternmen), locked into a rhythm of work that demands full attention. They plan their days around wind, tide, and weather, elements of a nature that can be beneficent and bountiful but also unforgiving and punishing.”

But it’s their independence that makes it so difficult for lobstermen to organize co-ops or any kind of association. “Given the reputed independence of the breed, lobstermen’s `cooperative’ sounds like an oxymoron,” says Formisano.

Amid all the concerns over dealer pricing practices, however, the fishermen did organize the Maine Lobstermen’s Association in 1955 to bargain with wholesalers for better lobster prices. “But when the MLA called for strikes (“tie-ups”) in 1957 after prices dropped for the second year in a row, dealers refused to negotiate and brought the U.S. Justice Department into the dispute.”

The ensuing trial held in Portland was called The United States of America vs. Maine Lobstermen’s Association and Leslie C. Dyer. Dyer was a veteran lobsterman who helped organize the tie-up. The author says of him: “… Leslie C. Dyer was an enormously charismatic presence, adored by the fishermen and respected even by the men prosecuting him. When rumors flew that he might be fined $50,000, reporters gleefully quoted; his terse rejoinder: `if I had $50,000 I’d be worried.”‘

Formisano’s account of the trial is the best part of the book. He writes, “The exchanges between the city-bred government lawyers and the Maine fishermen constitute by far the most vivid and often most humorous parts of this story. They also reveal a clash between two cultures: one urban and rationalist, the other coastal and commonsensical.”

The book includes photos of all the major players including Dyer, as well as Alan Grossman, the colorful lawyer for the fishermen, Judge Edward Gignoux, and a number of the other fishermen who testified.

Most of the fun in this book comes, of course from the give-and-take between the men “from away” who don’t know a thing about the life and work of Maine fishermen and the taciturn and sly Maine men who answer the lawyers’ questions with “… a keen sense of humor, which expressed itself usually in the classically understated Maine mode.”

What with the ongoing controversy over the dangers posed by the fishermen’s gear to the right whale and the animal activists who are protesting the way in which lobsters are cooked, this should prove of interest to many more people than just fishermen. It has a great deal to say about Maine’s native culture.

In his wonderful, huanting poem “Lobster Claw,” Poet Leo Connellan, who grew up in Rockland, writes:

“Lobster, I will kill you now,

Crouch in your rocks. Pull up

your bed covers of seaweed.

Ride the sea’s bottom. Move

out deep in winter. Burrow

in mud. Hide under

kelp. I will bait you

to my family’s survival

without conscience. My own

life is in the lines hauling you in.”

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