Richard Earle was interviewed by Mary Giles on December 11, 1975. He spoke about his job on a lobster boat.
I’ve lived all my life at Westport Point, most of the time right behind the Methodist Church. I went to the public schools in Westport until part way through high school, and then I went away for three years to Tabor Academy down in Marion. There I learned naval science and seamanship and things like that. I really wasn’t that crazy about it at the time. You know, school was school. I kinda like to be outdoors but I did get a lot out of it though.
I left Westport for approximately five years to go and work for Piper Aircraft in Pennsylvania, which is in the mountains, and I learned to fly a little there. They had a flying program. And then I went from there to North Haven, Connecticut, where I was a trade’s instructor in United Aircraft for about four years.
I guess it was my stomach that made me come back to Westport to fish. I almost had an ulcer. It just wasn’t my environment. I grew up near the water; I guess I belong near the water, so I decided to come back and go fishing. I must say, my stomach’s a lot better for it.
Today, we go primarily for offshore lobsters, what they call Jonah Crabs and swordfish. Our season basically starts around the first of May and the farthest out can vary anywhere from ninety to one hundred and twenty miles. As the season goes along, starting in June or July, we start moving back in closer. There’s a general migration. The lobsters generally migrate into shallow waters so that – it’s due to the water temperature. They move back to mate and molt, then along about September and October, we’re fishing somewhere between fifty and sixty miles out. Our season ends around Christmas.
What one does all winter depends on how ambitious a person is. Most of the time you have to spend getting ready for the next season, working on the boat, and we try to get a couple of months off to collect out thoughts and figure out what we’d do differently next year. Basically offshore lobstering is about a seven or eight month operation.
My greatest time is spent lobstering, but today there’s a lot of commercial sword fishing, which I did some of earlier. There are two types of sword fishing – what they call ‘long line’ with hooks hanging from these lines. The line drifts all night and they catch swordfish that way. That is usually done on the edge of the Continental Shelf, which you’d usually define as anywhere from a hundred fathoms out. There are six feet to a fathom.
The other type of sword fishing that is done is called harpooning. Today it’s done with a boat and also an airplane. The airplanes spot the fish and with communications, the boats follow and harpoon the fish, much as they did whales years ago. The sword fishing can be done the year ‘round depending on how far the individual wants to travel. The fish are found all the way down into the Gulf of Mexico and up off the cost of Nova Scotia. It depends on how long you want to be away from home.
The boat that I run is 64 feet long. It’s called ‘Side Show.’ It originally was a shrimp boat. I bought the boat in Key West, Florida, and brought it up here. It was easily changed from a shrimp boat into a lobster boat. It can be used for three or four kinds of fishing – lobstering, shrimp fishing or dragging.
We see dolphins in the summer anywhere from a hundred miles out. I’m speaking of the mammal now. There’s also a dolphin fish that comes up with the Gulf Stream that we see quite a bit of. The dolphin fish is big sports fishing down in Florida, but up here we don’t really fool around with them. There’s not that much of a market. They’re good to eat once in a while, and a fellow might take his fishing pole along and catch one or two purely for the sport of it.
A good catch depends on how long your pots set in water. When you’re catching lobster by means of a lobster pot, in the offshore fisheries, we usually leave the pots down anywhere from four to seven nights. If we can average one pound per pot per night, in other words to relate that a different way, let’s say in seven days, if we can average seven pounds of lobsters per pot, we feel we’re doing fairly well. The average offshore lobster fisherman is probably fishing anywhere from one pound to twelve pounds, and for a trip per boat I would say it would run anywhere from 2,000 pounds per trip to 5,000 – 6,000 pounds per trip. We’re not rich because lobsters are expensive to catch as well as to eat. The cost of equipment and operating expenses have about doubled in the last three or four years like everything else.
About prices and costs – I imagine if you go back far enough, lobsters were probably a nickel a pound. To the best of my recollection, which goes back to 1958 or 1959, fifteen or sixteen years ago, lobsters on the dock only brought maybe 45 to 50 cents a pound. Today they can bring up to $2.20 a pound. This is what the boats are being paid. In the last three or four years, the average price of lobsters has gone from about $1.00 to $1.80.
This is the price paid to the boat, so you can see the price of lobsters has almost doubled in the last three or four years, but if you look at operating expenses, they have almost doubled too.
Even as recently as 15 years ago, offshore lobster fishing was really not understood. The first lobstering done about 100 miles off shore, about 100 miles out on the edge of the Continental Shelf, was done by means of dragging nets with huge rollers. It wasn’t until 1965-1966 when Prelude (The Prelude Company/Bill Whipple) started potting lobsters off shore. So it’s sort of a new thing that’s developed in the last eight or ten years.
From a sports point of view, before I got into commercial fishing, I used to enjoy pleasure fishing, and bass and blue fishing were a couple of my favorites. You can catch bass and bluefish right in the rivers here. You can catch bass in the river starting in early April and until some time in October. The bluefish come in early June and leave some time in September. The bluefish normally are outside the mouth of the harbor – off Gooseberry Island and Sakonnet Island – good areas for blue fishing. It seems bluefish are more up and down as far as availability. The bass are a little more consistent.
Lobsters are probably like timber in the forest in that they are a natural resource. They’ve been here since day one! It takes a lobster seven years to grow to what we call maturity. A female, after seven or eight years, produces eggs and carries on a line. The volume catch of lobsters in the last five years has steadily gone down. It’s a business where we’re taking something from it every day and not putting anything back.
They have, out on the West Coast, what they call ‘lobster farms.’ They take the eggs and put them in favorable conditions and bring them up to legal size, and it takes approximately two years in super heated water (70 – 75 degrees). It seems that the warmer the water, the faster the growth of the lobster. Where we’re fishing, the average bottom temperature is probably 40 – 50 degrees. There is a way of farming lobsters. Whether it’s practical or economical at this point is debatable. The only thing that must be seen is whether they can save the lobster fishing by a strict management program, controlled or managed all the way up to the Federal level. There are so many states, and each state has its own rules and regulations, and until they get together and regulate the number of lobsters that are taken each year on a national level, it’s going to be a down hill business.
A lobster can travel a lot further than people think. People from the University of Rhode Island, on a tagging program, where they tag lobsters, have had lobsters travel at the rate of four miles a day. One of the largest figures they have gotten back was 120 miles in 30 days. This is not to say a lobster travels four miles every day. It means that a lobster has the ability to travel four miles a day. From the general fishing point of view, lobsters tend to stay in the same spot for maybe a month or two months. Through nature or some other means, they up and take off every once in a while and you have to go off chasing them.
Lobstering has its good and bad years. Fifteen or twenty years ago they went through a low period in the sense of landings. Landings go up and down. What the average year should be, it’s not easy to say. You have better years and bad years. I think it depends on nature. It’s a funny business to put your finger on because you never see them (lobsters) until you’ve got them. You’re fishing for something you can’t see. Lobsters depend on water temperature and that depends on prevailing winds, the effects of the Gulf Stream. Two hundred or two hundred and fifty miles off shore, the effects of that Gulf Stream vary from year to year. The Gulf Stream comes in closer some years than it does other years. This year (1975) was an extremely warm year as far as the water temperature was concerned, and the lobsters behaved very differently than they did the past three years. They seemed to move into an area closer to shore than they normally did. It takes a fisherman a certain amount of time to figure out where the lobsters are, since he can’t see them, so their coming in closer doesn’t necessarily make them easier to catch. You go by your past experience and what others are doing, and I think the lobsters this year kind of fooled everybody a bit for maybe a month or so. That’s part of the business. If we knew everything about a lobster, I’m afraid we’d catch them all and we wouldn’t have a fishery. As far as years ago, if the fishing got tough and it wasn’t profitable, a certain number of people dropped out and went into other types of fishing altogether.
Today, off the Point, there are probably about eight offshore lobster boats going out and we might have another twenty of those fishing out to 50 miles. Some boats go for swordfish. This year, not very many – more sports fishermen. That’s due to the fact that Westport is not equipped right now to handle swordfish. There are no swordfish dealers. That’s due to the depth of the water. Boats that are handling swordfish and are harpooning them on a commercial basis, find it more advantageous to sail from other ports.
Twenty years ago, the airplane was not in use. Then, ten, fifteen or twenty boats would leave Westport and go out sword fishing for the day and they might get from one to seven fish apiece. That’s changed now because the cost of fishing for swordfish has gone up tremendously. The cost of diesel fuel has gone up tremendously and sword fishing is not a very cheap thing to do on a non-commercial basis. The presence of the airplane has created an advantage for the commercial boats over the boats that are just going out for a day at a time. The planes find the fish maybe 15 – 20 feet under water, whereas 20 years ago, the fish were spotted on the surface. It’s very difficult for a boat going out from Westport today to compete with the commercial fisherman. There are a few people here who will hire an airplane for a day or two. Most of those harpooning or long-lining have to plan their trips ranging anywhere from three days to twenty days. This requires ice; the boat has to hold ice below deck so the fish can be iced and Westport right now, how no icing facility. Newport and Point Judith, Rhode Island, are ports that have deep water and have the facilities for ice, and, as a result, most of the boats use these ports.
I would say that most of the swordfish caught here are sold in local restaurants or retailed in local fish markets. Of the lobsters that are caught, the majority of them, are shipped to Boston where in turn they are distributed throughout the country. They used to be shipped to Providence and on to New York in the old days. Today, most of the lobsters are moved on highways aboard refrigerated trucks, or in containers aboard airplanes and flown out to the West Coast and other parts of the country. It’s amazing to think how many times a lobster is handled between the time he is caught and the time he ends up on the dinner table. He’s handled three or four times on the boat, and then four or five times in and out of the water in transport.
It’s funny that people didn’t used to like lobsters. I suppose if people saw what the lobsters eat, they might lose their appetite for lobsters. Lobsters are basically scavengers on the bottom of the ocean. They eat most anything that’s living or dead. They have one claw called the ‘crusher claw’ that’s much more rugged and durable than the claw that we call the pincer claw. Nature has provided for the lobster to have one claw that can crack open shellfish or tough objects. His pincer claw is sort of like his fork and he can tear out the meat or whatever, and put it up into his mouth. The bait that we use to catch lobster is not a pleasant thing. It’s usually what is left over from a fish after it’s been filleted. It doesn’t smell very nice. If man could invent a way to take all our garbage and process it like a lobster does, and end up with a product like lobster meat….
I’ve been on the water since I was nine or ten years old, and I’d say that there might be more boats now than 20 years ago. Possibly there were as many then, but we must remember the amount of lobster pots being fished. Twenty years ago, the average lobster boat might have only fished 200 pots. Today that figure is between 500 and 1,000.
Bill Whipple founded the Prelude Corporation, and up until offshore lobstering, most lobstering was done on a daily basis, and the lobsters were kept on deck in water that circulated, or in the case of older boats, in a well in a watertight bulkhead. The water just came in from the sea and went in and out as the boat moved along. The temperature of that water was the temperature the ocean happened to be that day. It’s very difficult to keep lobsters alive in warm water. The ideal temperature is around 40 degrees. What happened when Bill Whipple and Prelude started – what happened there – they brought forward the idea of refrigerated water, of a closed system where seawater was brought in a self-contained tank that was refrigerated and circulated. This way, a fisherman could extend his fishing time from, say one day, to up to a week. The whole thing is a game of economics. Prelude was even on the stock market.
Fishing’s a funny thing. At one time the Prelude had one boat that was successful, then two boats that were successful, and they thought that if two boats were successful, four boats could be successful, but their costs exceeded profits. Why did Prelude go out of business and others survived? Well, Prelude had a lot of what you might call ‘indirect labor’ – president, vice-president, and right on down the line. They got into pension plans and high insurance costs, and since lobstering is an eight and nine month operation, they didn’t have enough revenue coming in to offset their expenses and, as a result, they went out of business.
As far as old timers in the fishing business here, I think it would be good to talk with William White, who lives down at Westport Point on the Main
Road. He knows the Westport River as well as anyone else. As far as fishing outside of the harbor, James Hollis has been fishing a long time outside of the harbor, and also Arthur Denault. Each Person has had his own experience, and Raymond Davoll. They would all have good stories to tell. There are all these different types of fishing – seining even – out of New Bedford – for herring and menhaden (Pogie). It’s what we consider trash fish. They are fish that people catch while in the process of catching other fish. They are kept rather than thrown out, and taken to places that have the facility to grind them to make dog food and fertilizer.
Codfish are caught here off the shores in the wintertime. When, in the winter months, lobstering stops, many boats go what we call ‘tub trawling.’ Tubs are lined with hooks every six to eight feet and these tubs are set on the end of the trawl and they catch cod. It’s a hard way to make a living. It’s during the coldest time of the year. It’s more or less hit and run. You have to pick the weather, and it’s very unpredictable what kind of season you might have. Codfish has become a substitute for haddock in a lot of restaurants for fish and chips. Overfishing by foreigners and Americans has depleted the haddock stock. Halibut is another fish that has been over fished. Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for people to go out and catch halibut. Since the presence of the Russians and East Germans, the halibut fishery has suffered tremendously. I think they found the spawning area for haddock. Some species of fish are predictable as to when and where they’re going to spawn and once the fisherman found out where that was; they went there to fish because it was most productive. As a result, due to no management or shabby management, the species were over fished and now haddock landings are only five or ten percent of what they were five or six years ago.
We need definite regulations that we don’t have now. I don’t want them to take away individual freedom, but we would all agree that there must be some sort of government regulations that would govern how much we can take out and where and as far as the 200-mile limit goes, I think that eventually we will have it – whether it comes from the ‘Law of the Sea’ Conference or through Congressional action, is debatable, but it will come in the very near future.
Fishing is like everything else. If you don’t put back what you take out, or don’t allow enough time for rebuilding, it’s a downhill slide. I don’t think American fishermen are going over there because most of our fish are marketed over the counter, whereas foreign fishing is protein fishing. They take everything they catch and process it one way or another. The majority of it might not end up on the table. The majority of it might end up as fertilizer or fishmeal. Most of our fertilizer, we get from other sources.
There is come shrimp caught off Provincetown, up to the Coast of Maine and down the Carolinas. We’re selective here. We’re not after protein per se. There is some tune caught off this coast.
I think you’ve asked me all the essentials. Fishing’s a funny game. The thing that makes fishing a little different, is that you only get out of it what you put into it, and you fish around the weather. It’s like farming, but a farmer can see things growing in front of his eyes, and he controls the land that he cultivates. In fishing, you have no control. You might have fished in one area last year and plan to go back this year, and there could be foreign boats there. You have no claim to any piece of the bottom out there. It’s all up for grabs and the weather is different every day of the week, and the prices of fish are different. It’s a challenge. I guess, basically, what gets people to go fishing is the challenge. There’s no boredom to it. I don’t know how much of a future it has. There’s a belief that because three-fourths of the earth is covered with salt water, the supply should be endless, but in recent years, they’ve discovered that the majority of the fish that exist, live over the area of the Continental Shelf, which means that from the continents, 100 miles in some places and 200 miles in other places. The oceans, Atlantic and Pacific, are basically free of fish. The marine life grows nearer land. There are species that, I suppose, will someday be on the market such as dogfish and skates – fish like sharks – the ocean is full of sharks, but there’s no market for them. Man does not bother the porpoise or dolphin at this point. Man could clean out porpoises and dolphin very quickly if he had a mind to.
The fishes traveling the open areas of the ocean are not the ones man uses. Once you get down 10,000 feet, the bottom temperature is so cold that bacteria or marine life doesn’t grow very much. The growth (or lack of it) of something trying to grow at 36 degrees temperature, compared to 50-degree temperature is amazing. At Woods Hole, they put packages down 12,000 feet and it’s amazing how slow they grow. A quahog in the Westport River could grow from spat to eating size in two, three or four years, whereas out 50 miles, there are quahogs called Mahogany’s that hardly grow at all. If man could heat the floor of the ocean, maybe he could have a big garden out there. Most of the fish are within 100 miles of the shore and these people that thought that forty to fifty years from now, most of our food was coming from the ocean, are going to be disillusioned. I don’t think the resource is there that people think here is. We really need a management program to protect the different fisheries that will allow the lobsters and fish to replenish themselves. I think perhaps some day; the farming of fish will come. It’s already happening, but now it costs too much for labor and the initial expense. The cost of feeing them for two years now is about equal to what they can get on the market. Eventually they will get that cost down, just as they have time (cut from seven years to two years).