Protecting a traditional industry through progressive marketing, worker-influenced lawmaking, and positive example.
You might assume that lobster meat is so desirable that it doesn’t need to be marketed. That’s not true. Like a well-made car that runs for decades or a sprightly white wine that tastes like the sunrise off Icaria, Maine lobster meat is a product that can command high prices thanks to its excellent reputation and its consistently high quality. While the second factor is a result of evolution, biology, and crustacean magic too complicated for me to describe here, the first is purely human-made. And Maine lobstermen, who are famously modest (even borderline secretive), are on the front line of the effort to educate the world about their catch.
Jeff Putnam has a medium build and a mild manner that matches his boat’s slow-but- steady pace as we crawl across Casco Bay. Like his unassuming vessel, a 48-foot fiberglass Bellevue that he purchased in Nova Scotia in 2011, Putnam doesn’t trumpet his skills to the world. He displays them slowly, unfurling his achievements over the course of our three-hour conversation. He’s a lifelong fisherman who entered the trade soon after graduating from high school. He is a founding member of the Dropping Springs lobster collaborative and he serves on the Lobster Advisory Council under the Department of Marine Resources. He is part of a branding and marketing company, Calendar Islands, that seeks to differentiate lobsters caught in southern Maine from those in other locales. As if that weren’t enough, Putnam has also started a small oyster farm, which he hopes to grow into an aquaculture business that he can one day pass down to his children. He’s a proud father, an active member of his local island community, and the kind of gentleman who names his boat (the Captain B) after his ferryboat captain wife and partner, Beth.
When I close my eyes and imagine a skillful marketer with an ear for language, I tend
to picture a person in a suit with some slick glasses, not a soft-spoken Mainer in large rubber boots and beat-up work gloves. And yet: “The first thing our branding collaborative did was change the name we use for soft shell lobsters to ‘new shell,’” he explains. “New shell makes you think of something seasonal, fresh, new. Get it while it’s hot.” Soft shell sounds like soft serve—a variation on a good thing, to be sure, but not a definitively superior product. But new shell? That sounds like something I want to eat. (As it turns out, new shell lobsters are also Putnam’s favorites; “I think they taste sweeter than the winter lobsters,” he says later.)
Putnam is part of a new wave of Maine lobstermen. He has a diversified business— fishing and working in aquaculture—and, unlike some of his older counterparts, he’s willing to talk openly about his life and his work, even expressing the occasional (gentle) critique of the fishing industry as a whole. “I think the lobster industry is still fairly traditional,” he says. “I’m a little nervous about the future of Maine as a working-class state; I don’t see the same amount of young people going into lobstering that there was 20 years ago.” Putnam believes diversification is key to making a living as a fisherman, as is banding together with like-minded professionals. His 25-member lobster co-op is currently working to raise awareness about the variety of lobsters that come from Maine waters, and seeks to standardize the prices for lobsters fished out of the Casco Bay region. Putnam also points out that it’s important for established fishermen (like himself) to mentor young lobstermen, encouraging them to enter the trade. “I don’t want our generation to be known as the one that didn’t help out the next,” he says.
One of the ways that Putnam works to change the culture of lobstering is through sponsoring apprentices and hiring young, green fishermen, like his sternman Chad Jordan, Jr., who began working alongside Putnam in August 2017. “I was broke when Jeff hired me,” he remembers. “I heard he needed someone for the day, and even though I was coming back from a moose hunt, I went to meet him at 2 a.m. and jumped on his boat.” They took off for two days, and it was Jordan’s second time fishing offshore. Jordan knew that getting onto Putnam’s boat was a risk, but he felt desperate enough to take it. Fortunately, the days they spent emptying traps together were peaceful in the way that hard work can sometimes be—it clears the mind, resets the body, and eases away worries. “It’s an honest day’s pay,” says Jordan. “You can work your ass off, make decent money, and not get a headache about it all night long either.”
Like Putnam, Jordan doesn’t enjoy talking about his work very much, but he would say this of his boss: “He’s a clean fisherman.” This, I learn, is high praise. Being a clean fisherman means you “go the extra mile to make sure you’re not in anyone’s way.” It means you make a daily choice, “Do you want to make somebody’s day longer, or do you want to be a decent person?” Jordan explains that Putnam doesn’t crowd other fishermen’s traps, he doesn’t play around with the law when it comes to lobster size, weight, and breeding, and he doesn’t cut corners. He treats the animals gently to ensure that all his lobsters go to market with their pincers and feelers intact (injured lobsters are considered lower quality and command less money per pound, and undersized lobsters, once injured, often don’t recover even after they’ve been thrown back). “Jeff doesn’t want to do anything that will hurt the industry,” Jordan says. “He really wants lobstering to keep going on forever. He wants his kids to do it. He wants other people’s kids to be able to do it.”
Lobstering has proved a reliable source of income for both Jordan and Putnam. While 23-year-old Jordan is just starting out, Putnam has been lobstering long enough to buy his own house on Chebeague Island, complete with plenty of yard space for his dog to roam and his sons to play. When he’s not on the water, he spends his time advocating for lobstermen, speaking to lawmakers, and watching his kids play hockey on their backyard rink. For Putnam, marketing lobster is a just one way of ensuring that his family has a sustainable lifestyle. Living on an island is difficult, he explains, but like lobstering, it’s a deeply rewarding choice. “Everyone on the island watches out for the kids,” he says as we sip coffee in his kitchen. “I always know they’re safe.” Out the window, tall pines sway slightly. It’s a cold, windy day, but it’s also clear, sunny, and bright. While the rest of Maine is stuck in mud season, Chebeague feels like a tiny piece of paradise.
Putnam admits that sometimes he can take his picturesque surroundings for granted; after all, he’s a Mainer. This is the world he knows, one filled with sea air and evergreens and deep- fried lobster for dinner. “I know I’m lucky,” he says. “I grew up on a beautiful island and into a fishing industry that is thriving. And this is where I get to make my living.” He gestures toward the sky, and toward the Atlantic. “Some people can only dream of being able to look out on the bay from their office. I get to actually work on it.”