Maine’s Lobster Apprentice Program seeks to bring new workers into an old industry.
Over 20 years ago, Jamie Header was diving for urchins off the coast of Phippsburg when his skiff disappeared. It was December, just a few days before Christmas, and the water was frigid, but Jamie was comfortable inside his wetsuit. “It was rough out, but we thought we were in a good area,” he remembers. He had been harvesting urchins under a ledge, and he had amassed a good haul. “I got to the point where I couldn’t fit another urchin in my bag, so I came up and looked around. I couldn’t see anyone,” he says. His brother, Dan, wasn’t wearing a wetsuit; he was supposed to be staying safe in the skiff. But their boat had capsized and Dan had gone over.
Unbeknownst to Jamie, a life-or-death drama had unfurled while he was underwater gathering the spiny delicacies. His brother and friends had fallen into the water and
been rescued by a passing lobsterman. The man’s name was Jackson Percy. “He saved my brother’s life that day,” Jamie says. “I could have swum to shore, but Dan wasn’t wearing a suit. If Jack hadn’t come at the time he did, it would have been really bad news.”
Jamie’s teenage son, Jackson, sits just a few feet away. Both of their faces are lit with the harsh spring light, which glances off the estuaries of Falmouth as the sun descends. Jackson looks out toward the water and fiddles with his cellphone as his father talks; he’s heard this story dozens of times. This is the story of how his uncle almost died, how one lobsterman was a hero, and how he got his name.
Jamie has been diving for urchins for decades, but Jackson and Wyatt, his two sons, are new to the seafood business. At 14 and 15, they’re also mighty young for lobstermen. But these two boys grew up on tales of capsized boats, oddly colored lobsters, and oversized fish, so when they heard about the apprenticeship program for Mainers, it was only natural that they’d sign up. “I don’t think I could get a license right now if I wanted to,” says Jamie.
“This is a great opportunity for the boys to get their licenses—they can each have one by the time they’re 17 if they put in the work and do the hours.”
Jackson and Wyatt are members of the student apprenticeship program, which is overseen by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Under this program, Wyatt can have 50 traps and Jackson can have 150 for personal use. They can eat the lobsters they catch, or they can sell them locally. (Jackson and Wyatt sell them to friends and family, as well as the occasional stranger who catches sight of them unloading their boat.) Each student registered in the program needs to be sponsored by a lobsterman; Jackson and Wyatt are sponsored by Tom Martin of Lucky Catch in Portland. “They can go to him if they have any questions about the laws, or if they need advice,” explains their mother, Michele Header.
While some parents might worry about sending their kids off to work on the choppy, cold waters of the Atlantic, Michele and Jamie are thrilled that their boys have
decided to pursue their lobster licenses. The Headers don’t necessarily expect their sons to become lobstermen for life; they view the apprenticeship program as an opportunity for Jackson and Wyatt to learn lessons and skills they won’t find in a classroom. The boys are paying attention to where lobsters like to congregate, and they are learning how to captain a small vessel through open water. “We’re starting to learn where the big rocks are underwater, and what we need to stay away from,” adds Jackson. “We’re getting to know Casco Bay really well.” Wyatt chimes in, “We found a sunken boat out by Fort Gorges and there were no buoys around it. It was cool.”
In addition to learning about the underwater topography of Maine, the boys are gaining an appreciation for the life of a fisherman. While they’ve heard their dad’s stories, there’s nothing quite like experiencing the work first- hand. “This program has given them a sense of hard work and what that phrase really means,” says Michele. “I think we live in a society that appeases kids a lot of the time, but we both come from families that work hard. To have our kids doing physical work—that’s a good thing.”
Right now, both boys talk about becoming orthodontists. (“I’m going to be a better orthodontist than you are,” Wyatt playfully taunts his older brother, “And make more money.”) Jackson is currently saving up to buy a truck, and he views lobstering as a way to make money during his summer vacations. But they also realize that lobstering is a viable and attractive career path, should they ever want to go that route. “It’s an option,” says Wyatt. “I love being out on the water.”
“Once you get your lobstering license, you can have it for life,” Jamie adds. “It will always be there in their back pockets. They can do it during the summer between semesters at college, or they can become lobstermen if they want.” This is one of the main reasons the State of Maine has instituted the program: it wants more young people exposed to the lobster fishing industry. Under current laws, it is extremely difficult for anyone over the age of 18 to get a license. This means the ranks of lobstermen are skewing ever older, and as Michele puts it, “Every industry needs someone to pass its skills along to. Any trade needs fresh blood.”
According to a 2011 article in the Portland Press Herald, the apprentice program was “designed to fit the traditional fishing culture in Maine, where expertise is passed down through families, and those who own the lobster boats are the ones doing the fishing.” Although Jamie doesn’t fish for lobster, he has been diving for urchins for decades. The apprenticeship program offers his sons a chance to participate in the lucrative lobstering trade, and more importantly for Jamie, it gives him something fun and character-building to do with his boys in the summertime. While some families hike and camp, the Headers like to go out onto Casco Bay, pull a few traps, make camp on an island, and fire up the lobster pot. Wyatt and Jamie have become adept at cooking their own lobsters. “The trick is to use seawater,” Wyatt says.
As summer approaches, both boys are antsy to get back out on the water and try their luck with their shiny new traps. Last year was a poor year for lobster, Jamie explains, and they’re hoping for better luck in 2018. Either way, Wyatt says he’s just happy to be fishing. When asked why he does it, his answer is simple and straightforward: “I think it’s exciting,” he says. “I kind of think of it as a holiday. Every time you open up a trap, you never know what’s inside. It could be a hundred crabs, a dead duck, or a few lobsters.” To which his brother says, “Yeah sure, but I hope it’s lobsters.”