What We Remember When We Feast Beside a Plundered Sea

Gina Rae La Cerva on the Last Days of the Lobstering Life in Maine

When viewed over the distance of time, our ability to harvest the sea has grown in a steady arc of improvement. But in the day-to-day experience, this occurred in fits and starts, by accident and necessity in equal measure.

The New England lobsterman, holding a long familiarity with the untrustworthy disposition of the ocean, would hide away in winter. The lobster, too, migrated south or farther away from the coasts to deeper water. The lobsterman worked at the pace of the winds and the movement of his own hands. He knew the call of the seabirds and the timing of the fish runs.

Then someone made a more powerful boat that could head farther out to sea, and in doing so, extended the season into winter. And another discovered that the coolant lines from the boat’s diesel motor could be run through 50-gallon barrels of seawater. And so the lobstermen began to plunge their trap ropes into this hot water to clean them, and the work became more efficient.

Mary spent much of her childhood on her father’s lobster boat. On the chilliest days, when the sleet drove sideways, they’d heat up cans of soup by dropping them into the hot barrels.

How does it feel to eat wild seafood caught that morning, adjacent to the waters in which it lived? To examine the hands of the man who caught my dinner?

On the pebble beach, a bleached-white carcass rests among lilac sea heather and the corpses of shipwrecked trees. Blue worms orgy in the tide pools.

Three men prepare the kitchen. They nestle a massive steel drum pan in the crook of two large boulders and build up a pile of rocks to stabilize the free-hanging side. Firewood, brought from the mainland, is pushed underneath. Other people haul buckets of rust-green seaweed from the tideline, a few little crabs hidden in the tangles, and dump the contents into the cooking pan.

This is covered with wet paper bags and a layer of food—raw black lobsters, tinfoil packets of half-onion half-potato, corn on the cob in their husks—followed by more wet seaweed. Someone lights the blaze. The lobsters turn orange in the infernal seaweed. It is a dry summer and thunderheads tease in the distance.

Picked-over crustaceans crowd our paper plates, piled at odd angles like the fallen tombs of a ransacked kingdom.

As we eat, piano riffs float from somewhere across the shallow bay. I think of stories about heroic lobsters, five feet long, forty pounds, blue and speckled, as old as a century. The rough incrustations upon their backs were like the bark of a tree, marking their decades of growth. We eat with our hands. We eat as if afflicted with madness. It is the best lobster I’ve ever had.

Over the course of the meal, the seagulls flare their courage and grow closer. Like beggars at a coronation feast, they seem to think of themselves as wrongfully uninvited guests. It’s illegal to throw lobster trash on the beach, and so the birds are denied even our scraps.

“I think I forgot to breathe while I devoured that,” I say, surveying the ruins of our meal.

Picked-over crustaceans crowd our paper plates, piled at odd angles like the fallen tombs of a ransacked kingdom. My hands are sticky.

As the sky darkens, we light a bonfire on the beach. Someone tosses brightly colored glowing bocce balls like they are at a rave. A boombox plays pop music nearby, although it’s been turned down. Fragments of conversation gather around me.

“You want another insect?” the fisherman who brought the lobsters says. “I sure don’t. I don’t care for ’em.”

“We’ve all got Maine privilege,” another answers, with the surety of a well-used phrase.

Two men pass a joint. “Sure, we’ve got that special terroir up here,” he jokes in a pitched tone as smoke slowly escapes his mouth.

“. . . The land we’ve got . . . we call it Poison Ivy island . . . I’d love to plant some weed there,” the other man says, taking the joint. “That would give it some serious terroir!”

Athena’s voice is husky and scratched by cigarettes. She has a cursive name tattooed on each foot, the calligraphy sharp and luminescent like fish scales. She likes to eat lobster “unadulterated”—without butter or sauce, barely steamed, fresh. She’s been around lobster a lot these last ten years, drove a truck full of them, up and down the Eastern Seaboard. It wasn’t the work that she disliked; it was always being held accountable for greater forces.

“I got sick of it. They was always blaming me when prices went down. ‘Why the prices go down?’ I’d get from both lobstermen and middlemen. Like I knew?” Athena says casually, as if her little history is just a coincidence.

“You know what I told my boss when I quit? I said, ‘Go get yourself a facial! You look old!’” she laughs through a cigarette atmosphere. “Now I buy clams from the local guys and sell them to wholesalers, you know, for restaurants. Treats me much better.”

She’s older than most of us, pushing 50, but wears the uniform of a teenage girl—cheap flip-flops, jean shorts, a baggy black tank top, lacy with rips, and a glimpse of her bright bikini strings peeking through. Her hair is greying with a bad dye job, but it suits her, this rebellion against time. Like an aged groupie following the music of her youth, she keeps adjusting her baselines, accommodating her vision of how life seemed to be until she forgot how good it once was. Later that night she will fall asleep with rocks in her pockets.

As if in hidden recognition of a shift we were scarcely aware of, we invented natural history as a language to describe what we were destroying.

“So rare to be on a beach at night these days,” the man sitting next to me says. “When I was a kid, beach bonfires happened a lot. They were crowded. Hot ash blowing in our faces. That was how we experienced childhood.”

“I’d say we’ve got another 20 years before it’s all gone. The lobsters, this beach, this kind of life . . .,” a woman replies. A few couples lean into each other around the fire. I feel lonely and also content in my solitude. A paradox I’ve wrestled with most of my life.

Sometimes, I wonder if it is possible to be romantically in love with a moment and everyone in it. I’ve often felt a sort of intimacy with existence that I could never find with any individual person.

A shooting star falls across the sky. We call out our delight and a boat in the dark horns a response.

As I make my way to my tent, a soft wind blows through the old and dull hills, hunkering down, patiently saving its sharp fury for the coming winter. A sliver of moon rises, darkly, as if to summon the dead.

*

It was perhaps in the 18th century—when turtle soup was all the rage—that we first broke from earth’s time and tunings, and began creating the conditions for an accelerated future. As if in hidden recognition of a shift we were scarcely aware of, we invented natural history as a language to describe what we were destroying—like a eulogy at a funeral, which circumscribes a life already past.

One of the most distinguishing features of Enlightenment thought was the belief in a natural course of events. Wild Nature was thought to be as predictable as any other experimental endeavor. Like a well-regulated state, every part supported the rest, performing some function in subservience to the whole, and the world was only stocked with the exact number of animals it could support. Natural scientists merely sought to uncover God’s divine order, which brought the drift of mysterious forces into balance and benevolence.

But these studies were based on a nature already quite unnatural. The seas and specimens had already been deeply impacted for at least 200 years—they were a mere adumbration of a much more crowded past. Yet to Enlightenment natural scientists, the past was not a problem. The truth of Wild Nature was unchanging and the rational was always retrospective. They didn’t realize that the normal baseline they sought was dismal and anthropomorphic. It shifted under their feet like sand.

Like a volcanic eruption or an asteroid hit, the ecological impacts of colonial appetites had far-reaching effects. Green turtles are a keystone species, and, like the ruminants that graze on dry grasslands, are a transformative force of trophic ecology. Just by eating seagrass, they cause the plants to temporarily increase their nutritional value and coax forth new shoots, further increasing the food supply of the ecosystem that supports bivalves, mollusks, polychaete worms, amphipods, crabs, shrimp, herbivorous parrotfish, surgeonfish, sea urchins, small invertebrates, and many kinds of juvenile fish.

Green turtles also have enzyme-producing microflora in their guts, so when they defecate, nitrogen is released into the sea currents and deposited over a wide area, helping to fertilize coral reefs. Green turtles live long lives, and it takes 40 to 60 years before they are mature enough to reproduce.

What wisdom must be gained before passing on their genetics to the next generation! What a sense of accomplishment to thrust themselves out of the ocean and lay 100 amniotic eggs after such a long wait. A significant number of these do not hatch but decay into the beach, providing nutrients for vegetation on the shoreline that then prevents the sand from washing away.

As the green turtles were decimated, epiphytic algae exploded into growth. This suppressed seagrass productivity and led to the widespread mortality of the long-spined sea urchin, the most abundant sea urchin in the Caribbean for the past 125,000 years. The coral reefs were no longer fertilized as they had been and began to die back. The beaches started to erode.

How would the green turtle understand its own history, not as a product of human will and desire, but as a species regulating the environment in which it lived? And what of those turtles that were destined to become a cartilaginous broth, starved for the months-long journey on a windswept cutter, as silent and stoic as weathered mountains—did they enter a sort of spiritual hibernation on the ship crossing, a liminal existence in quiet contemplation of the doomed future?

The turtles were both themselves and something else. Their greenish fat both sacred and profane. Abundant, ancient bodies decimated and dissected by our violent appetites.

The creatures of the sea cannot be removed from their context without consequences. They are never discrete objects. They exist because of an ecosystem, and the ecosystem exists because of them. What ecological harmony is missing from New England’s rivers and forests without the ample runs of spawning fish that once existed? What ecological changes occur today when we eat lobster?

Lobster fisheries are some of the most sustainably managed: fishers are required to throw back both the big lobsters, which are the best breeders, and the smaller lobsters, which haven’t had a chance to propagate yet. There’s also a law in Maine that requires fishermen to notch a V on the back of any egg-bearing females they catch, which signals to other fishermen that she is fertile and should be thrown back.

Although there are lobster aquaculture attempts underway, so far they haven’t been economically successful. But due to heavy management, wild lobster fisheries are slowly becoming domesticated. The traps are baited with a pound of herring or other small fish, and since most lobsters are too small to keep, they are thrown back having eaten this meal.

With nearly four million traps in Maine, it is estimated that the baited traps contribute nearly half of the lobsters’ diets. By overfishing larger predator species like cod, we’ve also inadvertently given juvenile lobsters a better chance of surviving.

The turtles were both themselves and something else. Their greenish fat both sacred and profane.

Maine has been experiencing a lobster boom for the past few decades, but scientists warn that due to a number of factors, including climate change, it won’t last. The sea surface temperature is rising, particularly in the Gulf of Maine, where warming is happening at a rate 99 percent faster than on the rest of the planet’s sea surface.

This warm water causes problems for lobsters, interfering with their respiration, lowering their immune response, and increasing the likelihood of shell diseases, but most importantly making reproduction more difficult. As a result, the populations of lobsters that are thriving are increasingly found in cooler waters to the north, off the coast of Canada.

Wild fish stocks in general are threatened by climate change. Scientists predict that by the end of this century, the oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than they were in the 18th century. The seas are souring ten times faster than they did during any previous periods of marine extinction. Even fifty-five million years ago, during the last major marine extinction, the rate of change was ten times slower than it is today.

The current shift has come so quickly that species do not have time to adapt. Species with exoskeletons such as mussels, clams, and oysters are particularly vulnerable to acidification. It is unclear how this will affect lobsters, but there is evidence that acidification interferes with their sense of smell and their heart rate. As native seafood dies off, coastal ecosystems are increasingly becoming invaded by foreign snails. We face the loss of a very long maritime heritage.

*

In the morning, we eat squares of blueberry cake on paper towels and drink coffee from a Coleman coffee pot. Athena rips butts and drinks coffee from a mug with the words Florida Greetings. The wastes of our excursion are strewn across the picnic table. Bendy straws and stale glow sticks. Chips, Cheez-Its, and gluten-free crackers. Empty Natural Light beer cans and Jack Daniel’s bottles. Eggs from someone’s chickens. There’s a backlog of the meatlog, and moist cheese mingles with glistening deli meats. iPhones charge from a bank of solar panels set up near a folded air mattress and a pair of Merrell shoes.

I eat leftover lobster, cold and delicious.

We had come to Middle Tide Island to remember time, to overcome our self-control, to engorge ourselves with wild food and experience the liberty it entails, to eat because we were hungry, because lobster tastes sublime. Perhaps this kind of feasting is not so different from the pre-enlightened sort. Along the way, pieces are gathered and understood, but we can never quite grasp the plentitude of the whole.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, by Gina Rae La Cerva. Published May 2020 by Greystone Books. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.

Gina Rae La Cerva
Gina Rae La Cerva
Gina Rae La Cerva is a geographer, environmental anthropologist, and award-winning writer who has traveled extensively to research a variety of environmental and food-related topics. A National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, La Cerva holds a Master of Environmental Science from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Master of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge. Originally from New Mexico, she lives in New York, NY.





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