August 10, 2013

As alewife populations recover, a new economy emerges

Friendship lobsterman Jim Wotton believes the resurgent river herring could feed lobster traps en masse, generating big profits

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

At 3:45 a.m. in Friendship Harbor, Jim Wotton and his nephew were already working on the Friendship Lobster Co-op pier by bright moonlight.

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Jim Wotton, 44, weighs his catch on the pier at the Friendship Lobster Co-op in Friendship Harbor on July 29. After 12 hours of fishing, the crew unloads 800 pounds of lobster caught and crates them for transport to Canada for processing. Wotton has to send the lobster to a Canadian processing plant because it is the only one that can handle the high volume.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Alewives pour out of the elevator at the top of the Benton Falls Dam on the Sabasticook Stream on May 9. Alewife fishing can't begin until 250,000 fish have made it over the dam for spawning.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

Wotton, 44, of Friendship, is one of Maine's authentic lobstermen, but he's also taken on a second role in recent years that offers a look into the future. As a member of the Alewife Harvesters of Maine, Wotton has staked a claim in an up-and-coming industry that may soon be hugely important to Maine's 6,000 lobstermen.

Wotton says no matter how many alewives hatch and are harvested, there will never be enough to fill the black hole of the lobster trap.

"We use a lot of bait," he said. "There's room to absorb all the alewives in the system."

Hundreds of years ago, Maine was home to separate booming alewife and lobster industries, but a combination of dams and pollution wiped alewives off the economic map.

Experts say the recent removal of key dams in Maine rivers could increase the alewife population by five times, allowing the fish to outgrow their supporting role as bait fish and possibly even rival the lobster as one of Maine's premiere natural resources.

On a recent early morning. Wotten worked in the fog and shadows cast by towering stacks of lobster traps. Wotton, who lives just a mile from the wharf, has bulging, Popeye-like forearms, wading boots and a ruddy red complexion.

He and his nephew, Carl Hayes of Waldoboro, trotted up and down the pier, establishing an urgent pace that would continue for the rest of the day and the rest of the season. And, very likely, for the rest of Wotton's working life.

While Wotton got his boat, the Overkill, Hayes took frozen blocks of pogie, a bait fish, off a pallet and used his boots to break them apart so they would fit into trays. Mixed in with a half-dozen trays of pogie was one of alewives, brought from a stash in Wotton's home freezer.

Other lobstermen were using only pogie, because they are preferred by the soft-shelled spring lobsters that would comprise 90 percent of the day's catch.

But Wotton, who caught the foot-long, silver alewives himself from the Sebasticook River in Benton this past May, had a sense he could get some mileage out of the alewives, a favorite of hard-shell lobsters. If he could draw on his intimate knowledge of the ocean bottom to predict where the few hard-shells were, he could gain an advantage with the alewife, which is cheaper and lasts longer than pogie.

At the end of the pier, away from the stored buoys and rope coils, the two men used a motorized hoist to lower the trays to the boat, exchanging not a single word as they executed a well-established ritual.

The final load was two lunch coolers, containing a peanut-butter-and-jelly lunch that would provide more fuel than pleasure after the sun rose.

Wotton and Hayes piloted southeastward, leaving a small wake in a large ocean as they headed toward the first trap, between Allen's Island and Mosquito Rock. Twenty minutes after arriving on the pier, they were gone — receding red lights on the still-dark water.

Wotton's been fishing for 34 years, since he was 10. His father and his grandfather did too, using wooden lobster traps weighted with stones. So did his great-grandfather, Willy Wotton, rowing out to sea in a dory to pull up his catch. Nine generations of Wottons have fished this rocky bit of coastline for 200 years, a tradition that predates not only the town of Friendship, but the state of Maine.

If Wotton's children carry on the family business by taking to the sea, Wotton will have to make sure there is a family business to carry on.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Carl Hayes, 18, robber bands live lobsters after separating the keepers from the throwback lobsters, while fishing between Allen's Island and Mosquito Rock on July 24.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Carl Hayes, 18, stacks lobster traps on the back of his uncle's lobster boat, Overkill, on July 24. Jim Wotton, the captain and owner of the Overkill, picked up 50 traps to set further out in the ocean.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Jim Wotton, 44, center, hauls in a lobster trap with his nephew and deckhand, Carl Hayse, 18, left, while fishing between Allen's Island and Mosquito Rock on July 24.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Carl Hayse, 18, baits a lobster trap with alewives while fishing for lobster on July 24 near Friendship Harbor.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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A lobster grips a trap after being hauled out of the ocean on July 24.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Jim Wotton, 44, claws his way along a portion of the Benton Falls Dam on the Sebasticook River, a tributary of the Kennebec River, to get to a section where alewives tend to collect in large numbers, while fishing for the silver fish to be used as lobster bait on May 16.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Carl Hayse, 18, texts on his cell phone as he steams to the fishing grounds on Overkill, captained by his uncle, Jim Wotton, early on July 24.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Heidi Simmons, center, stands inside the transport truck as Craig Mott, 36, right, dock manager at the Friendship Lobster Co-op in Friendship Harbor, helps load crated lobsters onto a truck bound for a sorting facility in the town of Bremen on July 29.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Jim Wotton, 44, captain of Overkill, crates his catch for shipment in Friendship Harbor on July 29. Wotton is at least the seventh-generation fisherman in his family.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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Jim Wotton, 44, paddles his way back to the pier from his 44-foot lobster boat, Overkill, in Friendship Harbor, after a 12-hour day of fishing lobster on July 29.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

  


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