More Women Move Into Maine's Rough And Risky World Of Lobstering
It's 6 a.m. on a calm morning in Maine's Rockport Harbor, and Sadie Samuels is loading traps from her pickup truck onto her 28-foot lobster boat.
The daughter of a lobsterman, Samuels was born in a nearby hospital and has been on the water here for most of her 25 years.
"I've been coming out fishing in this harbor since I was born. I came here before I went home from the hospital," she says. "I had my first student license when I was 7."
Lobstering is physically demanding, dangerous work, and it has traditionally been considered a man's job. But Maine's lobster fleet has a growing number of women who, like Samuels, are running their own boats, and busting stereotypes along the way. In 2016, women held 434 of the 5,000-plus lobster licenses in Maine.
After loading her traps and bait, Samuels leaves the dock and steers the boat through the tight harbor. "I'm more comfortable driving around out here than I am driving down the street in a car," she says.
After a short run into Penobscot Bay, past seals and harbor porpoises, osprey and loons, Samuels motors alongside one of her green and yellow buoys. She gaffs the rope and wraps it on a hauler. She and her sternman, Aaron Seekins, pull the trap aboard.
Seekins quickly rebaits the trap and heaves it overboard, as Samuels motors to the next. Late in the morning she has a good haul, a nice load of keepers. "This is probably the best trap we've had all season," she says happily. After hauling nearly 100 traps, Samuels steers back to the dock to offload the catch.
Seekins, the sternman, is bearded and burly. He's the one who fits the stereotype of the Maine lobsterman. "We'll be on the boat, and people will think I'm the captain. I'm like, 'No, not me.' Just, you know, because people don't expect it. It is unfortunate, because she's really good at it and deserves just as much respect as anyone else gets down here," he says.
Lobsterman Brad Scott says locals have gotten used to seeing Samuels on the water. "A lot of people don't expect to see a woman out there, you know, but Sadie, she's great, she's a hard worker. But she's got to pay her dues though, she's not just coming in," he says with a laugh.
Samuels says her fellow fishermen are far less skeptical than her customers at the farmers market in nearby Belfast, Maine. She and her sister, Molly, who also fishes, sell lobster and lobster rolls there on Saturdays.
The sisters were partners in the boat until Molly went off to college, and Sadie bought her out. Molly now works the stern on their father's boat. And she says she and Sadie have had lots of frustrating conversations with incredulous customers at farmers markets.
"People would come up to us and be like, 'So who caught these lobsters?' " Molly Samuels recalls. "And we were like, 'We did.' And they were like, 'But who really caught them?' And we were like, 'We did.' And they'd ask, 'Whose boat?' and we'd say, 'Our boat.' So it's just this back-and-forth thing. So, yeah, it's still weird."
But people are slowly coming around. And Sadie Samuels says she and her sister are following in the wake of many women who got no glory, and were mostly known as fishermen's wives.
"Maine has a pretty big history of women being involved in the fishery, like in the big schooners," Sadie Samuels says. "There were many women who were the navigators of the boats and did all kinds of really awesome stuff. But you don't ever hear about it."
With more women lobstering in Maine, the word seems to be getting out now. Port by port, and captain by captain.
Murray Carpenter is a journalist and author of Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts And Hooks Us.