By Doreen Leggett
Billy Day helps manage a wharf in Machiasport, Maine and makes sure lobsters from the 60 boats that land there, as well as those that arrive in Stueben and Addison, get down to the Lobster Trap in Bourne and then to customers around the world. But the other day he was in the woods.
“He is cutting down some trees. Good, straight, spruce,” said Sam Bradford, chief operating officer of Mac’s Seafood, and Day’s boss.
The trees were going to Addison to repair the wharf that had flooded on Jan. 13 in one of the worst storms Maine has ever seen. Day was going to help rebuild the pier and raise it a couple of feet.
“These are the kind of people Down East Maine is known for. The place wouldn’t survive without them – the business or the community,” said Bradford.
Bradford was in Chatham, where Mac’s has one of its five restaurants and one of five markets. Mac’s started on the Wellfleet Pier in 1995 and steadily grew, buying the Lobster Trap, and its three associated wharves in Maine in 2022.
The Lobster Trap was started by Logan Clark in 1973, and like Mac’s, grew over the years. When he went to sell, Mac’s was interested.
Bradford explains it like this: Both Mac’s and the Lobster Trap have personal relationships with the fishermen they buy from and their communities.
“If you care about where your food comes from, and particularly in the seafood business you have to pay attention to what is truth and what is not, it comes down to who you are working with,” he said. “And to me the best way to know where your seafood comes from is to work with your neighbor, to be part of that community, to have that supply chain run close.”
The Lobster Trap, similar to Chatham Fish and Lobster that Mac’s bought in 2019, is founded, and powered by community. Sam and Mac travel up to Maine frequently, but the businesses run much as they have for decades.
“They don’t need to be coddled,” Bradford said with a smile.
Victor Sokoloski, started in Machiasport, but has worked in Steuben for several years; he left a time or two but came back. His clothing is a blend of past and current owners, a sleeveless Lobster Trap Crew sweatshirt and a black Mac’s Seafood hat.
On a recent winter day before the storm, he leaned on an empty window frame and looked out at a murky pond. In past winters it was filled with lobsters, but is now empty.
The pond, a tidal pound, is one of two at the Lobster Trap company in Stueben, about an hour north of Bar Harbor, and illustrates how the lobster business has shifted over the years. Man-made pounds date back to the late 1800s, when lobstermen used to keep crustaceans there for months at a time so there wouldn’t be a glut in summer, a dearth come winter.
“It’s husbandry,” said Sokolski. “Taking care of lobsters is a prideful thing.”
Now a steadier supply of lobsters year-round means pounds are not always used. Climate change has also had an impact, as water in the pounds can get too warm. Not many years ago Sokolski had to dive under ice in scuba gear to check on lobsters.
Conversations about the future of the pounds are ongoing. Bradford said they have been working with a Maine non-profit to figure out ways to grow oysters and other shellfish in the pounds as well.
“Being more ingrained in what is going on in the community is what we need to do to continue to be an economic driver,” Bradford said. “I think diversifying what we are buying is a really good thing.”
Two tidal pounds used to hold up to 190,000 pounds of lobster. An enormous tank system in the building, as well as tanks in Bourne and Machiasport, make that less necessary.
When it was time for lobsters to hit the market, the crew went out to the pound in a skiff and used an 8-foot drag to collect lobsters in mesh bags. Soft-shelled lobsters had become hard and after molting larger and meatier.
The drag gathered about 85,000 pounds, then the picking began, Sokoloski said. A sluice gate was opened up so water ran toward the sea.
Then the crew hopped in to retrieve remaining lobsters, which filled a few dozen crates.
Sokoloski manages the place with his wife Annie, who also handles the bookkeeping.
“She is kind of a life ring,” he said.
Although the pounds are quiet, the business is not. Sometimes, they run out of company trucks to run lobsters from ports in Maine, to Stueben and on to Bourne.
That winter day a rented Ryder truck stopped in Stueben to drop off lobsters that went promptly into the enormous tank system, filled with water from Pigeon Hill Bay.
Although many lobsters come in from other ports, Sokoloski works with about a dozen boats in Stueben, buying lobster and supplying bait and fuel. The lobstermen own their businesses and can sell to whomever they want, but often have a relationship with a dealer.
“We make it easy, we unload and we supply bait and fuel. It’s a convenience,” Sokoloski said.
The Lobster Trap also buys lobsters from a co-op out of Winter Harbor and from a middleman on Swans Island, in nearby Merrymeeting Bay. The middleman buys from the fleet that unloads on the island and ferries to Steuben.
In December, when lobstering in Maine and Massachusetts slows down, they start getting truckloads of lobster from Canada. Canadian lobsters can be as much as 22 pounds because they do not have U.S. gauge restrictions. Maine also has bigger lobsters than Massachusetts, which enforces minimum and maximum sizes.
The lobster business is iconic in Maine. Sokoloski said in November the creator of “The Best Food Review Show Ever” came to visit and film a piece for his 10.5 million followers on YouTube. Some lobstermen are mini-YouTube phenoms themselves.
Sokoloski’s life would make for a much better movie than a YouTube short.
Born in New Jersey, he moved to the Florida Keys, not fond of structure, preferring to hang on the beach.
“I was a troubled teen, dropped out of school in ninth grade,” Sokoloski said.
His mother was fine with him getting into the fisheries. “I started longlining for yellowtail snapper off of Cuba,” he said.
From there he bounced around, taking to heart the reminder he tattooed across his fingers: YOLO, You Only Live Once.
“I am like Johnny Cash,” he said, referring to the hit “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
That included time on the Cape, working out of Harwich on F/V Clean Sweep and Double Trouble and for Benny Crocker.
His 12 years as a stern man on lobster boats prepared him well. He got his start with the company , then called BBS, in Machiasport, which has more boats and less room for processing than Steuben. The third spot in Maine, Addison, is purely unloading, with bait and fuel.
Addison is about 25 miles south of Machiasport, picturesque though not known for comforts.
“You might be able to beg for some fuel or water if you’re desperate. Otherwise, Jonesport is your best bet. Ditto for dining out,” reads one travel blog.
On a recent sunny afternoon before the storm, Day was in the Machiasport facility, at a desk with big windows overlooking the water. Lobster prices as well as bonus amounts are written on big white boards and family pictures hang on the walls.
Day was looking at a computer screen split into boxes, one focused on the Addison wharf on Mooseneck Road. Watching a boat unload into a waiting truck, he clicked on another screen that listed trucks coming and going from various Lobster Trap facilities, all color coded.
“I run the trucks here,” he said, 12 in Maine alone, supplemented with the Ryder rentals. “It’s a constant struggle. You try and maximize each truck going different places without waiting.”
Day said he doesn’t have to worry too much about traffic.
“Comparing Cape Cod to Maine, it would be like going back in time,” Day said.
Day has been at the Lobster Trap for six years. His brother was a fisherman and now harbormaster in Machiasport (locals call it Buck’s Harbor).
Day spent 29 years as a correctional officer at the Downeast Correctional Facility up the road. He still is connected with the minimum-security prison, conducting job interviews with inmates about to be released.
There is a lot to do.
Machiasport starts the season with about 250,000 pounds of bait, everything from pig hide to pogies, kept in big vats on floating docks. A contraption nearby salts the bait and there are boatloads of salt to preserve it.
“There is a process for that,” Day said. “You got to know what you’re doing.”
A recent winter day was quieter than most. Across the harbor, Bar Island and the radio towers from the Navy communications facility could be seen, and Cooke Aquaculture’s salmon farm is around the corner.
“There is a sea on,” said Day, adding that come November and December some of the fleet switches from lobsters to scalloping.
The team was on break until F/V Dawn Marie motored in.
Typically, the team takes off lobsters and Jonah crabs (scallops in winter) and weighs them. Ninety-pound crates, often 120 in busy months, then enter the water through a hole in the deck of the trap dock.
From there they are floated on a line tethered to a long black mat that extends up the side of the building. Crates are drawn up by grapples, the layout like the front face of the Chatham Fish pier. The tank house is able to hold 500 crates, 50,000 pounds, in refrigerated water. An additional 25,000 pounds can be held in its tidal pound, the most northeastern pound in the United States, 50 miles from the Canadian border.
Lobsters are graded and spend the night in the tanks. They’ll travel on to Canada for processing or to Stueben or Bourne.
From there they’ll be shipped all over the world — or picked up at one of Mac’s markets. The difference is where they start, said Bradford.
He said their major competitors are publicly traded companies, on the Canadian stock exchange, or held by private equity firms.
“I think that matters,” he said. “I think it is important to have a company where you actually know who you are working with.”