Maine Lobsterman Teaches Lessons in Humility, Humor, and Life

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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Maine lobsterman Captain Julie Eaton of Deer Isle, Maine, is passionate about lobster fishing. While visiting the island, I had breakfast at the Harbor Café in Stonington, where I admired the work of a fellow photographer hanging on the wall. On closer inspection, I saw Julie’s card, which identified her as the artist–and a lobsterman.

Intrigued, on impulse I called her in the hopes she would be willing to be interviewed. As the phone rang, I suddenly felt a stab of anxiety, with that little voice in my head saying that anyone tough enough to be a lobsterman wasn’t likely to be too interested in talking to the likes of me.

Julie couldn’t have been more gracious and friendly and, as I was to find out over coffee the next morning, she certainly personifies strength and courage—in ways I hadn’t expected. With disarming openness, she shared with me early in our conversation that a horrific car accident at age 23 had altered the course of her life.

lobster fishing in maine
Photo: Meg Pier

Over the next two hours, I received powerful lessons in humility, good humor and starting over as well enlightenment on what life is like on the water, what some of the factors are that influence the price of lobster, and a fisherman’s view of global warming.

Last but not least, meeting Julie afforded me further validation to trust my instincts–and not second-guess myself out of a conversation that would prove to make me a better person. I hope you’ll make the time to read Julie’s story—it could change your day.

An Interview with Julie Eaton, Lobster Captain

Meg: Are you originally from Deer Isle?

Julie: No. I come from a little town called Surry that’s between Ellsworth and Blue Hill. If you blink you’re through it. That’s where I was raised. I went to high school at George Steven’s Academy in Blue Hill and went to college in Salt Lake City, Utah. I went on scholarship, I didn’t even know where Utah was.

Lobster fishing in Maine
Deer Isle harbor, Maine. Photo: Meg Pier

Meg: What was the scholarship for?

Julie: I majored in aeronautical science and minored in airport management. I soloed on my 16th birthday. I got my private ticket {Ed: slang for license} on my 17th birthday and got my commercial pilot’s license when I was in college. I could fly long before I could drive a car. I came home and was hell bent to fly because I wanted to do something that I felt was really important with my ability to fly. I thought the best way to do that was to fly for the state police.

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Tragedy Means Starting Over

When I was in the process of applying for the state police I was in a terrible car accident and sustained massive head injuries. They didn’t think I’d survive the accident. But I was blessed. I had no broken bones, it was all head injury. I was in a coma for months and when I came out of it, I went through months of therapy and slowly came around. They taught me to walk and talk and read and write again.

And of course I knew nothing about flying at that point. I mean it was gone. My past was gone. It was four days after my 23rd birthday and I started all over again. It was the biggest blessing I ever received in my life because all of a sudden I understood what was important. It wasn’t the new outfit I was going to buy for my next date, it was the ability to take a step and not have somebody hold on both sides of me. It was the ability to take a breath and not be on a respirator. I mean that really hit home. 

No Frustration for the Eaton's

Meg: When you were re-learning how to do everything you must have had a lot of frustration.

Julie: I really didn’t experience a lot of frustration because it just wasn’t allowed. My family wouldn’t allow that. They were very encouraging and very focused and we pushed ahead. My dad would sit at the kitchen table with me for hours with one of those great big fat pencils that little kids use and the big wide lined tablets and draw my letters over and over and over, trying to learn to write again. I didn’t know how to hold a pencil so it was the death grip on the pencil. But if we kept things light then it was better. And I was so driven to get better that I didn’t have time to be frustrated.

I went through a very small period of “Why me, why did this happen to me? Poor me.” Big pity party. Then I went to a national head injury support group meeting. I was well enough to drive by this time and I drove myself. I walked in all cocky and I was going to find out why this happened to me. I was really pissed. As I sat in this chair in the back of the room all indignant, I saw people being wheeled in on gurneys and wheelchairs and family members in tears. It was a funny thing because I never said a word. And when I walked out of that meeting it wasn’t “Why me” it was “Why not me? This is all right, I can handle this.” Even though you might feel like you’re going to buckle under, you’re never given more than you can handle.

Life's Short, Let's Go Lobster Fishing in Maine

It was like the biggest learning experience I’ve ever been through. Why not me? I can do anything. I survived this for a reason and I can do this. And that was the end of the frustration. That was the end of the pity party and from then it was just, as my mother calls it, balls to the walls. Let’s go, life’s short, let’s go. I never want to come so close with “Why didn’t I do that? Why wasn’t I nicer? Why didn’t I try this food? Why didn’t I try that sport? Why didn’t I try a little harder” It’s full out.

Finding Freedom at Sea

Meg: How did you get into lobster fishing?

Julie: I didn’t remember flying so I couldn’t do that. I hooked up with an older gentleman named Bud Kilton out of Sorrento who knew me from before the accident; I didn’t remember him. He used to take me out on the boat and I loved it. It was very peaceful. It was very therapeutic. It didn’t matter how different I was–the seagulls didn’t care. Everyone just went about its business and they didn’t stare and I was okay. Life for me was very calming out there.

That winter Bud took two divers and I went with him. I ran around the boat like a three-year old, which was about the mental ability I had. I had a towel to dry their faces because I thought I was being a huge help. And of course, I really wasn’t, I was being a big pain in the ass but I was trying. At the end of the season I said to these two guys “Next year I’m going to dive” and they’re like “yeah, right.” I got certified that summer and I was diving that next winter and I dove for scallops for four years and loved it.

lobster fishing in maine
Photo: Meg Pier

After about the fourth year of diving, I knew that if I were this passionate about it and wanting to do it year-round, that’s lobster fishing in Maine. So I moved to Vinalhaven, an island 13 miles off Rockland accessible only by boat. And the guys out there were good enough to teach me the business. I mean I was really lucky, they were all my teachers.

More Women are Lobster Fishing in Maine

Meg: Did you meet any resistance?

Julie: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Especially because I was from the mainland, I had no birthright to fish there. When I got a little outboard and I asked the guys if I could fish, knowing that they could look at me and lie but hoping that they wouldn’t, hoping they’d be honest with me. I asked them all. And they said “Oh yeah, you’ll be fine. Yep, you’ll be fine.” I had this one older gentleman look at me and say, “Well yes, yes, I think that’s all right but I want you to know that I’ll be watching you.” I could have been very offended but I turned that around and I chose to be very honored. I said to this man, “Oh, thank you so much, it means the world to me knowing that someone’s going to be looking out for me.”

lobster fishing in maine
Photo: Meg Pier

So lobster fishing in Maine makes me very happy. I’m one of few women but there are more women coming into this all the time. I’ve done it for 27 years now. I feel like I’m doing something important for everybody. And what I do on the boat is no different than what a guy does.

Hard Work Behind the Scenes

Meg: For readers who enjoy their lobster dinners and they love the sight of the lobster boats on the water, can you explain what is actually involved in lobster fishing in Maine?

maine lobsterman
Julie Eaton and her husband. Photo: Meg Pier

Julie: I’m married to a lobsterman who runs his own boat, so we’re a two-boat family. I think that people who aren’t familiar with the industry see the boat going out and they see the guys coming in and they see the catch. What they don’t see are all the hours over the winter–of shop work, running rope, taking knots out of rope, putting on new rope, splicing rope, scrubbing barnacles off traps, off bricks, mending bait bags, painting buoys, sanding buoys. There’s so much to it that we don’t get paid for.

Every Day Counts on the Water

We have 16 weeks to make a living and every day counts. Because on this island the industry is fishing, so in the winter if you haven’t made it, that’s it, you’re out of luck. There is no work here in the winter. And although we could drive to the mainland, it’s probably going to be an hour drive to get anywhere that you could get a job. You might get minimum wage or a little more, however, when you figure gas and wear and tear on your vehicle you haven’t made anything. So we have to make our living in the summer.

We pay all our bills and house payments a year ahead because that’s when we have our money. If we’ve had a good year then we have a little extra. If we don’t have a good year then we have paid our bills and we’ve shopped for the year and our freezers are full. We go to Sam’s Club and grocery shop for the year. I get everything except for milk. I can freeze my butter. Milk and eggs I’m hard pressed to shop ahead for but everything else I’ve got. We’ve a got a huge pantry. The freezers are full and we know that no bills are coming in and that we’re okay.

lobster fishing in maine
Photo: Meg Pier

If it’s a really good year then maybe we can take a trip. If it’s not, then we stay home and just love each other, just spend time together.

A Day in the Life Lobster Fishing in Maine

Meg: Can you describe what a day in the life of a lobsterman is like?

Julie: I can tell you what my day is like–it’s a little different than some of the guys. My husband gets up and leaves first with his stern man. A stern man is somebody that you hire to help you on the boat. They handle the gear. They help you pick traps. We both have stern man.

I run about 10 miles before I get to my first string of gear. A string is five traps in a row. I fish all single traps, which means one trap on a line. And I haul 200 traps every day. I fish 400 traps but they’re on a short set. So the 200 I haul on Monday I’ll haul again on Wednesday and I’ll haul again on Friday and the other 200 are the alternate days. And I stay out there until I get my gear hauled.

I gaff a buoy– a gaff is a long pole with a hook on it–and put it through the hauler and bring the trap to the boat, slide it on the rail, and my stern man helps me pick it. He stacks it while I’m going to the next trap and you repeat that over and over and over all day long.

Visions of seaside life along the Deer Isle harbor. Photos: Meg Pier

If I’m out hauling by myself, if I don’t have a sternman, I’m usually in maybe five, six o’clock at night. But my stern man helps immensely. If we hurry–and I don’t like to hurry because I’m old–I can be in by noon. If I take my time and just enjoy being out there I’m usually in by two.

Lobster Fishing in Maine Takes Teamwork

Meg: How long have you worked with your stern man?

Julie: For about two months and he’s never been before so I’m breaking in a rookie. I get a little crap from some of the fisherman about being a cougar because he’s 19 and he works with no shirt on. But since I’m old enough to be his grandmother I just say honey, you’re getting a sun burn.

Meg: I’m a very independent person and I have a very strong will, which is not always easy for the people I work with. You’re working in pretty close proximity with someone – what is that like?

Julie: I have to really get along with the people that I work with because you are in a confined space you’re on a boat. If you don’t like them well, you’re apt to pitch him overboard. You know, get off my boat, swim. Now when I go alone and I’ve missed gaffing the buoy for the third time and I’m a little ticked off with myself I usually fire myself at least once a day but I have to hire myself back to get my own butt ashore. But when I’ve got somebody with me I have to be patient. This kid is brand new. He’s 19 and he’s never done it before and it’s my chance to really impact on this kid. It’s my chance to teach him not only hard work on the boat and on the water but to appreciate what’s around him. He loves going with me. He says he wouldn’t go for anybody else but I think if the money were there he’d probably jump ship but I hope not. He does a great job. I’m very happy with him. He’s really learning and I’m proud of him.

I’ve been with some captains that were pretty mean and you just have to get past that. You keep your mouth shut and you do your work. You have to realize that most captains are under a lot of pressure to pay their expenses and to pay their crew and to bring in a good catch and to make money for their own family and to keep everybody safe. That’s a big responsibility. I don’t think that’s always seen, how much pressure a captain really is under.

It's Always Time to Go Lobster Fishing in Maine

Meg: What about the weather? If it’s bad or foggy do you still go out?

Julie: Doesn’t matter. We don’t even look at the weather. I mean if it’s blowing a hurricane, if it’s blowing above 40 then we’ll stay in, but, otherwise, we go. We’ve got a short season and every day counts and the weather really doesn’t play an awful big part in that. If it’s time to fish, it’s time to fish, you’ve to get in your boat and go. You suck it up. I have 16 weeks to make a living not only for me and my family but for my sternman. I mean there’s a lot of responsibility. I have to pay for my bait and fuel. I’m just a little fisherman and it runs me about $200 a day before I ever leave the mooring. Some of these guys, their expenses are much, much more than that.

Meg: I went out on the water yesterday and it’s pretty obvious to even someone who isn’t nautical that it could be really dangerous because of all the rocks. The first time that you went out when it was foggy, can you recall what that was like?

maine lobsterman
Sunrise and arctic vapor with two boats. Photo: Julie Eaton

Julie: It’s very easy to get disorientated in the fog. You really have to depend on your instruments even when your body is telling you I’m not going to the right. If your instruments are telling you that your boats turning to the right you really are. So you have to really focus on what your electronics are telling you.

Fighting the Fog

The first time I hauled in the fog I was on Vinalhaven and had a little 23 foot open outboard. It happened this day I wasn’t going to go because it was so thick you couldn’t see across the street. And I walked into the post office on Vinalhaven to get my mail, this was the first year I ever fished on my own, and in the post office getting his mail was a lobster buyer who I much, much greatly admired. His name was Bob Brown. He came from Marblehead. Oh, he was a wonderful man. He was an amazing man. And he was my friend.

He said to me, “What are you doing in here?” And I said, “It’s too foggy to go.” And he said “You get in your boat and you go haul.” I didn’t want to disappoint him so I grabbed my mail, I got in my truck, and I drove to the skiff and I went on my little boat, which I couldn’t see from my skiff. Found my little boat, fired her up, and I tried to get out of the harbor. And I think I hauled all day 10 traps because I couldn’t find my gear. I had a compass and a depth sounder and that was it. But I tried and he didn’t care how many I caught or what I hauled but he wanted me to get the experience and to get over the fear of hauling in fog. And that day, I was like where the hell is home? I mean I got very lost, very confused, and you can’t panic. That was my first experience in the fog.

Lobster Fishing in Maine Takes Proper Equipment

When I married my husband and started over here on Deer Isle, that summer there was fog every day. I would follow him across the bay and he would drive me to my first buoy and say, “Here you go, this is where you start, just keep right on going, they’re all in a line.”

Well, I couldn’t see from buoy to buoy because it was so foggy. And he would call me and say “I’m all done, I’ve hauled 200. How are you doing?” And I would say “Honey, I’ve hauled 40 traps.” Well, we could see that I couldn’t make any money with a compass and a sounder and a radio. I just didn’t have enough electronics. So that day we went over to the marine supply store and we bought a chart nav, which is a piece of electronics that’s like a map that shows your boat, shows the ledges, show everything and you can put marks on it where your gear is. That became the Holy Bible for me because no matter what the weather was I could see my gear anywhere I was going. That helped immensely.

Superstitious Lobsterman on Deer Isle

Meg: Your experience of being out in the fog and then making the immediate decisions that you needed to buy the electronics makes me think about the importance of being able to ask for help. I can have trouble recognizing there’s another way to do something I am struggling with, and that there might be an easier way, that I don’t’ have to make it so complicated for myself. That was a good kind of a spiritual metaphor you just described.

Julie: Most fisherman if they’re not religious, they’re pretty friggin’ spiritual. They believe in something much greater than they are and they’re very superstitious. Not every day am I going to make a lot of money. Some days I might even go in the hole but God always see to it that I have what I need. Now what I need and what I want are two different things.

lobster fishing in maine
Photo: Meg Pier

God has enabled me to use electronics that somebody has created that makes my job much easier and much safer and how blessed am I, I can go to haul and I can see the ledges. Now that’s not to say that I don’t hit them on occasion because I do. It’s up to me to take advantage of the resources out there. If it makes my job safer then yeah, it’s not a bad thing.

If my boat is taking on water, all I have to do is call on the radio and the guys are there for me. If they call, I’m there too because out there, that’s all we have is each other. There’s no room for in-fighting. If somebody calls, you go, even if he’s your worst enemy on land –that’s just how it works.

Emergencies on the Water

Meg: What is the worst weather you’ve been out in while lobster fishing in Maine?

Julie: I’ve seen some stuff on the water that most people would consider a little hairy. I’ve been out in lighting storms where the lightening is literally bouncing across the water.

Once I was up the back shore probably 10 miles from home and driving along, music was on, everything was good, beautiful, not a cloud in the sky. You know when you hear on the radio “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system?” Well, I heard that but it didn’t say this is a test, it had an actual message and I’d never heard that before. The message was something about severe thunderstorm warnings for Rockland, Maine.

Serene still waters can change fast in temperamental New England weather. Photo: Meg Pier

Well from where I was lobster fishing in Maine,  I could see Rockland off in the distance and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining. I’m thinking somebody in that national weather service office is smoking something and I kept hauling and again I heard this message. And I’m thinking yeah, definitely smoking something funny. At that point I’d taken three traps on and all of sudden it was like somebody shut out the lights. It got pitch black and started to blow. So I get the gear off the boat and I decided to head down the bay and go home. I’d had enough of this I’ll go home.

Perseverance Pays Off

Now my husband at this point is seeing the weather turn, and he goes down to the shore because he’s long been in, and talks to his brother and his brother says “Where’s Julie?” And Sid says “Oh, she’ll be fine, she’ll know enough to duck into a cove somewhere and wait it out.” Did I? No, I wanted to go home. The crap is hitting the fan, I’ll go home. Get my boat on the hook, get off, get home where it’s safe.

So I’m coming down the middle of the bay it’s probably 15-foot seas and my little 30-foot lobster boat is powering up over the waves and shimmying down the other side. I wasn’t scared because I was too busy just trying to drive my boat knowing that if I ran over a buoy that I couldn’t see then I’d be dead in the water and screwed. So finally I made down around the corner and my husband who was on the shore watching said he thought he saw an antenna and never saw it again–because I was riding in the trough of the wave scooting right in between the islands. Oh yeah, that wasn't good. That wasn't good but I did it. Of course when I got to shore there were some other fisherman on the dock, and they said “You’ve been out in that?” Oh yeah, nothing to it. They didn’t know how my butt was puckering the entire time. Oh yeah, nothing to it what’s the matter with you guys? Huh? Come on out, let’s go.

Meg: Wow, that is amazing.

Julie: A lot of guys have been in a lot worse, that’s just my little story.

The Growing Eaton Family Bottom

Meg: How do you get territory in the water? Is it handed down from family to family?

Julie: It’s very difficult to explain. Bottom is usually very coveted. I tell people when they ask me about marrying Sidney that as a fisherman, I’d marry into their family bottom, their fishing grounds. So it was very important that I became extremely familiar with my husband’s bottom. Was it good bottom? Was it a productive bottom? I mean let’s face it, you would never want to marry a man that had stinky bottom or soggy bottom. So I tell people I married my husband for his good bottom.

My husband’s family has been lobster fishing in Maine for years. I wouldn’t be fishing where I fish now if I hadn’t married my husband. I would have set gear out and they would have cut it off. I don’t belong there. My fishing grounds, of course, would be in Surrey I have a birthright to fish there.

Lobster fishing in Maine
Residents of Deer Isle are ever-mindful of the dangers of lobster fishing in Maine; it is a tight-knit, supportive community. Photo: Meg Pier

The Eaton family is huge. There are three different Eaton families on this island and if they’re related they’re extremely distantly related. I’m related to the whole darn island now. I’m a great grandmother to four. I’m great-great aunt to I don’t know how many and I’m 48. I mean it’s a huge family.

Importance of Family

Meg: How do you perceive the importance of family on Deer Isle?

Julie: Family is extremely important but I think even more than family closeness the island community, whether you’re related or not, is extremely tight. I think that’s the way on most of the islands, I dare say on all the islands. The island becomes your family whether you’re related or not. Without the support of my husband Sidney and the Deer Isle/Stonington fishing community, I would never have been able to live out my dearest dreams of a life on the sea!

There are more things that are more important than blood. If somebody’s in need here we’re all there to help. If someone were in need we would all be there to help. When a fellow fisherman gets hurt or God forbid gets killed, we all feel a great sense of loss and do all that we can to help in any way we can much like policemen, firemen or soldiers. Without each member of our community being in place, there is a definite sense of loss.

Lobster Fishing in Maine Is a Lifestyle

Meg: Is there anything about lobstering that you think people should know?

Julie: I think it’s very important for people to realize that fishing isn’t just a job. Fishing is a lifestyle. Everything I eat, read about, watch on TV, dream about has to do with fishing. It becomes totally encompassing. It’s everything. It’s not just a job. And I think that it’s very easy for people who go to a restaurant and pay $30 or more for a lobster dinner to think that lobsterman are rich, but that’s not the case at all. Right now there’s a restaurant here on the island selling a lobster dinner for $30, which to me is insane because what I’m getting for my lobsters right now is a little over $2 a pound. Somebody’s making a lot of money between where I land that lobster on the dock and 10 miles of the road but it’s not me.

lobster fishing in maine

I fish because it’s like breathing. It’s what I do. If somebody told me that I couldn’t fish anymore I don’t know what I’d ever do. I mean I have a college education but this is what I do. It would be like somebody telling me not to breathe anymore.

Rules and Regulations in Lobstering

Meg: Right. I feel the same way about writing.

Julie: I think it’s very important that people who don’t fish realize that this is our life. It’s been our life for generations. It’s not just a job. And we’re very protective of our industry. Lobster fishing in Maine has some of the toughest regulation in the country. For example, I probably keep 10 percent of what I catch in my traps. Maine fisherman notch the tails of females that carry eggs to mark them as breeders. You can’t keep notched females of any size.

If you buy a one-pound lobster it’s not from Maine because a one-pound lobster is too small for our measure–about a pound and a quarter is the smallest you’ll get that comes from Maine. On the other side of that, they can’t be too big.

The amount of lobsters we have right now bottom of the ocean is phenomenal–it would shock you. My traps are coming up full. The stocks, the resource looks so good and so healthy right now.

We are dependent on the Canadian processors to buy the majority of our lobsters and cook and process them as we have little processing ability currently in Maine. I have high hopes that that will change though very soon! We have worked very hard as fishermen to observe some of the toughest conservation measures in the country and protect our resource for future generations. We ship out catch to Canada to be processed thus losing possible Maine jobs and the lobster meat is shipped from Canada marked a product of Canada when it is our product paid for with our blood, sweat and, yes, even a few tears on occasion! Oops–sorry! Fishermen never cry! Top secret!

Lobster Dinners

Meg: I understand the lack of processing plants here in New England has had an impact on the price of lobsters, which is at a real low. Can you explain how this works?

A blue lobster. Photo: Julie Eaton

Julie: When we started our spring fishing after an exceptionally warm winter, the lobsters came in to shed their old shells about 3 to 4 weeks early due to the warmer than usual water temperature. We caught an over-abundance of lobsters causing the Canadian processors to be completely overwhelmed. The price plummeted as per the economic law of supply & demand. Then the Canadian fishing season opened further flooding the market.

I have been asked over and over by people around the country, if the price is so low then why don’t we see it here in Utah or Texas or any other place around the country? Even on our own Island and the surrounding coastal communities the “market price” of lobster rolls and lobster dinners doesn’t always reflect the down turn that the fishermen are facing. I can’t explain that part as it is out of my hands after I sell them to my dealer. I can say that someone is profiting from the pain that this has caused to fishing families here though and it isn’t the fishermen!

I think that if the restaurants would run a special on lobsters and we could unload some that would be really, really big help to us. By running $30 lobster dinners, that’s not doing us any favors. Right now I can eat lobster cheaper per pound than I can eat hot dogs. Hot dogs here on the island are $4.99 a pound. There’s something wrong with that picture. I don’t think that most of the restaurants realize that if they could sell more dinners, they’d make more money even if the profit margin were smaller, rather than trying to make a huge profit on one dinner. I mean if you have an over-abundance of anything then you run a special on it. If you go into the grocery store and granola is on sale well, they’ve got an overabundance of it. You know, let’s move the product. It’s the same thing with lobsters.

Changing Seasons in Maine

Meg: Does the season change every year?

Julie: It’s very complicated. It has a lot to do with water temperature and tides. We had a very mild winter and I don’t think we had snow past February and the lobsters came in and they shed. Big lobster fishing in Maine starts in shore around the fourth of July. This year my husband and I set out the first part of June. The price was up, thank God, but of course, the market kind of just took a nose dive, so now we’re paying for fishing early. But you have to have faith. That’s when you dig really deep and you realize that God never gives you more than you can handle and we’re going to handle this too.

Life in Deer Isle is both simple and colorful. Photo: Meg Pier

We’re a tight knit community and we’re all going to get through this together. We’re very lucky we have each other to depend on. That’s not to say there isn’t a little infighting right now and not everybody’s tied up but you’re talking about 500-plus independent businessmen all running their own boat and their own business. You’re not going to get that many businesses to agree on any one thing but you hope that the majority will have an effect.

Cat Sass 1, the Amazing Boat

Meg: Tell me about your boat.

Julie: It’s typical that you name your boat after your wife. Well, of course, I don’t have a wife–or daughter, I don’t have any children of my own. I knew if I named it after my mother my father would be hurt and my brother would be left out. So I decided to name it after our kitties. And I thought it was very important to have a little sense of humor. You know out on the water a sense of humor will take you a long ways. I saw this name on an off shore racer in Florida down in the Keys and I loved it. So I used that name for my boat–the Cat Sass.

Julie's boat Cat Sass 1 she uses for lobster fishing in Maine. Photo: Sam Murfitt

I love my little boat. She’s 1972, 30 foot repco with a 210 Cummings and she’s a perfect fit for me. She’s just a perfect fit for me. I don’t have to haul really fast. I burn between 15 and 18 gallons of diesel a day. I’m going just as cheap as I possibly can and going all the time to try to maximize my earning potential as does my husband.

Concern for Global Warning by Lobstermen

Meg: What are your thoughts on what’s going on with the global warming–are you seeing any changes?

Julie: It’s a little scary. Everything here is cyclical whether it’s the lobster cycle or the scallop cycle. You had seven inclining years when the stocks got better and then you had seven declining years when the stocks got worse and then they build up again. Everything is cyclical. Like the tides. They come and they go and they come again and they go. It’s a little scary that our tides are higher now than they were, the water’s warmer earlier and thinking about what kind of impact this will have in the future. They say that our lobsters are going to stay softer longer. And are we going to be more prone to disease.

Lobster fishing in Maine
Photo: Meg Pier

I think my biggest fear isn’t over-fishing because obviously, we’re in crisis because we’re catching so many. I’m keeping 10 percent of what I keep so this over-fishing crap is nonsense. It really is. Our stocks are healthy. As a matter of fact, they’re so healthy that what would get us now is a disease. When you’re containing 200,000 pounds of lobsters in a small, shut-off cove, if one lobster’s sick, they all catch it. Kind of like getting the flu only you get shell disease and it destroys the lobster. The stocks are so healthy right now that if we ended up with some kind of a disease it would wipe us out. That’s a big concern to all the fisherman. So far we don’t see any sign of that. The island communities are totally dependent on fishing.

Please Listen to the Lobstermen

We worry about things like that but you have to trust. You have to trust that you’re making the right decisions. I wish that the government would hear us and they don’t hear us. Don’t over-regulate us. Stop. Leave us alone. You’re screwing up the deal. Leave us alone, we’re managing this very well.

There was a big report that came out–the scientists are so befuddled, so confused about how we can land more lobsters every year and why the stocks aren’t decreasing. The stocks are so healthy the scientists can’t explain it. Well, we can explain it–why don’t you listen to us? Please listen to us. We’re taking care of our stocks. We’re taking care of our female egg lobsters. We’re protective of our industry. Listen to us. You very educated smart people, try to understand. Listen to those of us who are out there every day because we see it. We’ll tell you what’s going on but don’t make us an enemy. Don’t make us so afraid to talk to you that we won’t talk to you. Don’t threaten us and we’ll help you.

lobster fishing in maine

Meg: Somebody I met yesterday described fishing and lobstering as being very creative.

Julie: I think a better word might be spontaneous because you really do you have to react in an instant. And whether you make the right decision or the wrong decision you’ve made a decision and you follow it through and you hope that it’s the right one. And if it’s not then you have to try again. It’s one of those situations where it has to be okay to fail.

Julie's Second Passion

Meg: Tell me about your photography.

Julie: While I’m out there I have a camera with me and I shoot some amazing pictures. I want people to see how beautiful it is where I work. I like to be able to share why we fish. What it is that we see when we’re out there–like the eagles and the osprey, and the seals and beautiful sea roses. Everything looks different from the water. And everything smells good but I haven’t found a way to capture that yet.

I have started a little photo business, kind of a sideline, it is growing all the time. I do a line of cards and notepads and coffee cups and framed pictures. I do little canvas tote bags. I’ll never get rich off it. It has to stand on its own–I can’t take my money from lobster fishing in Maine to support my photography habit. I hope that people like what I do. It’s all about sharing a little piece of my nautical world.

Making Friends While Lobster Fishing in Maine

I have an eagle on one of the islands who I love. He’s been there forever, he’s old. I have a seal that’s my buddy that will come quite close to my boat. He’s a little different and easy to spot. If you take the time out there you really build relationships. You have to remember that as a fisherman you’re a guest in somebody else’s world and you have to be respectful. You don’t kill stuff unnecessarily. I realize that I’m a lobster harvester but it’s not my job to rape and pillage and kill everything out there. It’s my job to conserve and protect. I mean I want this industry to be around for my grandkids and their kids. It’s very important that this is around for a long time. This is our heritage.

maine lobsterman
Inflight Snack. Photo: Julie Eaton

This is what we do. How do I explain this? It’s sort of like being an addict. Addicts have to have that fix. Fisherman are the same way, it’s all about that fix. For us it’s breathing that salt air. It’s even dealing with the smelly bait. Its hearing the gulls cry. Its hearing the seals bark. The waves slap against your boat. The pounding of your diesel engine. You know in a heartbeat if something’s wrong with your engine because you’re so in tune with what’s going on.

Head shot of the baby harbor seal. Photo: Julie Eaton

Mentors Are Important

Meg: I understand you have a photography mentor.

Julie: Sam Murfitt is a wonderful mentor and I am truly blessed to have is help and attention! He taught photography at a college in New York and was the lead photographer for De Beers diamonds in New York. He now does a wide variety of professional photography and I met him through his photography of the Maine Lobster Boat Races in which both my husband and I race our boats!! Sort of like NASCAR on the waves! Mr Murfitt is wonderful and very patient with me. He really takes time with me and out of the goodness of his heart is very good to me. He thinks I have potential.

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2 thoughts on “Maine Lobsterman Teaches Lessons in Humility, Humor, and Life”

  1. What a beautiful story of a wonderful career of a positive minded lady. I enjoyed your “biography ” so much. I’m originally from Brunswick, now living in New Hampshire. My older brother was a fisherman most of his life, which helps me to understand the lows and highs of anyone in working the waters of Maine. As difficult as being a lobsterman is, it certainly has many benefits that make it worthwhile.
    Congratulations Captain Eaton!


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