First published in the MLA Newsletter, January, 2012
In the quest to capture the great-clawed crustacean known as the Maine lobster, few things are more essential than traps.
Whether it’s a little shop, big company, or a do-it-yourself builder, lobster traps contribute to the Maine economy in numerous ways. In a December, 2011 article in UMaine Today, the Lobster Institute said that “the estimated overall economic impact of the lobster fishery on the Maine economy is between $816 million and $1.36 billion annually.” Where does the trap industry fit in that picture? According to Kevin Athearn, associate professor of environmental and community economics at the University of Maine at Machias, the U.S. Census Key Statistics recorded 17 lobster trap building establishments in the state of Maine in 2007, with an annual sales value of $23,577,000, an annual payroll of $5,815,000, and 208 paid employees.
Marty Eaton of Eaton Trap Company in Woolwich thinks the lobster trap is the foundation of the state’s thriving lobster industry. “The trap, probably after the boat and the motor, is the next biggest investment. One thing I tell all the young guys that come up here to buy traps, the trap is what will make them the money. The boat does not get the lobster, it gets them to the trap. They need a safe boat, not the biggest boat, and if they invest in traps, the traps eventually will buy them the boat that they want.”
Eaton says that his company “does not build just a trap, but a lobster trap that is nice enough to put a piece of smoked glass on it and put in your living room.” Once you’ve got the one for the living room, he adds, you can put the rest in the water. “A new trap will outfish an old trap,” says Eaton. “It’s tighter and cleaner.”
Of course, small trap shops can’t supply all the traps needed in Maine, since there are an estimated three million in the water, all taking a regular beating from tides, rough bottom, hauling, and all the other forces of man and nature. The majority of those three million traps, and the thousands needed each year to replace them, are produced and sold by two large companies: Friendship Trap, founded in 1977, and Brooks Trap Mill, founded in 1946.
Brooks Trap Mill was started by the grandfather of the three siblings who own it now — Mark Brooks, Julie (Brooks) Russo, and Stephen Brooks. Their mother still works in the office: “It’s great — we get to see her every day, and it helps to keep us close,” said Stephen.
How many lobster traps are produced by each company is difficult to estimate as each sells other trap products. Brooks sells shrimp, eel, whelk, and crab traps in addition to lobster traps, and produces mesh cages for oyster growing. Both companies also do trade-ins, sell used traps, and trap kits for lobstermen who want to build their own traps. Given those complications, Stephen Brooks estimates his company sells 30,000-50,000 lobster traps on average annually. Mike Wadsworth at Friendship Trap cites an average of 60,000 traps sold annually. But when the industry takes a dip, so do trap sales.
Some lobstermen like to build their own traps, or at least a portion of them. According to Chris Betts, who works at New England Marine & Industrial in Stonington, the store has about 30 customers who build their own traps using supplies from New England Marine. According to Betts, it saves a lobsterman between $20-30 per trap to build his own.
Friendship Trap employs about 54 people year-round, eight of whom are in the company’s Jonesboro location. Brooks Trap Mill employees vary from 50 to 70 depending on the time of year and the state of the fishery. The company has three locations in Maine: Brooks Trap Mill in Thomaston, Portland Trap, and Bath Lobster Supply.
Looking at the economic benefits of the trap industry and its contributions to the Maine economy, it’s likely that the only Mainer not benefitting in some respect is one of the state’s most famous residents — the tasty, and trapped, Maine lobster.