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Stories

Catching Bugs in Casco Bay with Chebeague Island's Only Female Lobsterboat Captain

Mary Todd is a lobsterman. She’s been on the water since she was twelve years old and this summer she’s the only female captain operating a boat out of Chebeague Island.

Mary runs her boat, F/V Aiden and Sadie (named after her twin children),with her sternwoman and stepdaughter Emma. 

The morning I go to haul with Mary and Emma it’s unseasonably cool, with sunshine breaking through dark rain clouds. This is Emma’s first year going out regularly with Mary, but they’re already in sync. They maneuver around one another and the gear on board - the bait totes and the hoses running from the live lobster tank. Their movements seem choreographed; they work silently as music blasts from the stereo and fishermen banter on the radio. (To hear the sounds of Mary’s lobster boat, watch the audio slideshow below)

 
 

Despite the fast pace of hauling traps, there is a calm rhythm on board F/V Aiden and Sadie. Mary hauls the traps in a hydraulic hauler and pulls the trap onto the boat as Emma unlatches the top and takes out the old bait. Mary picks out the lobsters one-by-one, measuring to see if they’re legal. The ones that are too small or too big get thrown back. The lobsters that are just right get placed in a red bin in the cockpit. Emma puts new bait in the trap, closes the top, and sprays the pot with hot salt water to keep invasive sea plants from growing on the metal. Then she swings the trap to the back of the boat and the whole process begins again until the six-trap string is ready to go back in the water. This all happens in a couple of minutes.

The process seems intuitive, like they’ve done it a thousand times. And, I suppose, Mary probably has. She’s probably done it millions of times. Her grandfather was a lobsterman on Long Island, and she says that she became a fisherman because she didn’t know any better. “I never became a lobsterman… because of any ego thing like, ‘that’s what I’m gonna do! And I can do what men can do.’ It’s pretty much because that’s what you did.” 

She loves it, despite the hardships that come with fishing and trying to balance motherhood and lobstering. It doesn’t really phase Mary that there aren’t other women on the water. The other lobstermen in Casco Bay are used to her by now, and she’s a formidable competitor. When Mary told me that someone cut her line (the string that extends from her buoy to her traps) she said she was actually flattered. “That means they’re threatened by me – they’re threatened by some chick!” 

Watching Mary haul, I can see why. There are moments on the boat when Mary’s brow furrows and her face looks stern and concentrated. I ask her what she’s thinking about and looking at. She tells me she is watching the way water moves past the buoys. The motion of the water indicates the strength and direction of the tide. The tide and current affect where her traps settle on the ocean floor, so Mary watches the movement to calculate where to set them. She knows what she’s doing, and the other lobstermen know it.

After hauling for four hours, Mary and Emma catch a giant lobster in one of the traps. It’s huge, but it’s legal, and for a minute Mary is ecstatic. Then she notices the feathery appendages under the tale, indicating that the lobster is female. “I feel guilty keepin’ her.” Mary says as she tosses the giant lobster back into the sea. “You’re lucky I’m a chick,” she calls after the lobster, “if I was a dude you’d be in the tank for sure!”   


Written and photographed by Galen Koch, 2014.