Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Stony Creek's Last Lobsterman

Despite hardships, old tradition still has allure for long time mariner

Stony Creek, CT - Early on a May morning, the horizon glows like wildfire and the sky is splashed with red and orange hues. The sun rises silently and a new day is revealed. At this hour- 5 a.m.- most here in Stony Creek are still asleep, but the seagulls squawk searching for breakfast.

Lobsterman Steve Consolo is busy pulling bait-fish from a gillnet set days earlier in the waters off Branford's Thimble Islands. The bait is menhaden, a member of the herring family, commonly known as bunker by local fishermen. Earlier, against the backdrop of quiet neighborhood streets, Consolo prepared his gear and boat for a morning on the water. Overnight the temperature dipped to near-freezing, so the lobsterman wears an extra pair of wool socks under his rubber boots.

Consolo sports the traditional garb of the fisherman – bibbed orange oil skins over his jeans and a woolen cap. A thick insulated sweatshirt, stained from previous outings, hides layers of flannel and thermal underwear.

Consolo pauses to revel in the splendor of the morning and to refuel his soul, for sunrises are one of his job's perks. As long as the wind doesn't blow hard, he will go about his morning ritual of collecting bait and checking his lobster traps, just as he has done for nearly three decades. A creature of habit, Consolo says, "You don't get into lobster fishing to get rich. You do it because you love to be on the water."

Consolo, 47, is Stony Creek's last native lobsterman, having fished in and around the Thimble Islands since he was 12 years old. Back then, he worked out of a small rowboat, with a personal use lobster license for 10 pots, discovering through trial and error where the lobster lurked. At the time, heavy wooden traps, purchased for $8 a piece, were lowered to depths of 40 feet and then hauled up by hand. It was grueling work, but for a kid who loved being on the water, it was everything he needed. Consolo became a commercial lobsterman in his 20s, acquiring the classic Down East-style lobster boat he still uses. Equipped with a hydraulic winch, it's easier on the back muscles.

"Those days are gone forever, I hope!" Consolo laughs. "Hydraulics are nice. Hit a button and away you go." He tells of an old-timer who pulled traps by hand until his 70s and walked with a hunched back.

Consolo remembers when a dozen men made a living lobstering out of Stony Creek. He recalls all their names and talks about them with reverence. He then adds wistfully, "They are all gone now. I'm the only one left out here doing this."

Lobstering, like much of commercial fishing, is not the business it once was. The work is too hard and the rewards too few for sons to follow fathers into the business. Here on Long Island Sound, the ranks were further thinned after 1999, when a massive die-off of lobsters nearly wiped out the industry. While the western part of Long Island Sound felt the brunt of the impact, the Stony Creek waters did not go unscathed.

"There were probably three to four years when you could just about catch a lobster on the inside." Consolo says. "There was almost nothing. It was bad. You could pull 100 traps on the inside and maybe catch 10 to 15 lobsters, and that was good back then. The lobsters were gone!" Before the die-off, Consolo would expect to catch 100 to 150 pounds per outing – or about a single 1-1/4 pound lobster per trap.

Consolo, like many lobsterman, blames pesticides used to control mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus, but the state Department of Environmental Protection has never pinpointed a single cause for the die-off.

"You can't convince me that it didn't have some effect." Consolo says of the spraying. "I would hold firm that it at least had part to do with it."

Long Island Sound lobstering suffered another blow in recent years – a bacterial infection called "shell disease." Lobsters with shell disease appear pock-marked, but their meat is fine for consumption. Consolo found it difficult to sell them. "If you go to a restaurant, you don't want to see something like that on your plate." he says.

This year, however, the local lobster industry is showing signs of recovery, with catches up from previous years. "Right now it sure is looking better than the late '90s." he says. "This year's lobsters seem healthy and clean."

Commercial lobstering has seen a few changes over the years, but not many. Wooden traps have yielded to lighter, more durable, vinyl coated steel traps, and Global Positioning Systems and sonar depth finders allow lobstermen to locate more productive fishing grounds. Apart from that, the work is carried out pretty much as it was 50 years ago.

The traps are on an eight-day set, but the length of time they're in the water can depend on the season and weather. They are about three feet long and two feet wide and rigged with a nylon bait sack. There are openings at the ends through which the lobsters crawl in search of food but cannot crawl back out. A bright-colored foam buoy marks the location.

Lobster season is at its peak in local waters from March to mid-May. May through June is molting season, and the lobsters tend to head out towards deeper water. A second wave of activity arrives in late June and lasts until August. During peak seasons, the traps are checked every couple of days. Catch rates vary greatly from year to year, and you just can't predict how profitable the season will turn out.

This morning Consolo steers his boat up alongside a lobster buoy. Then, with a six-foot aluminum gaff, hooks the line and pulls it aboard. The line is made fast to the winch, a switch is flipped and up comes the trap, dripping with seawater and filled with a potpourri of marine life. Consolo first clears debris, then empties its contents, noting "dirty traps won't fish." In addition to a couple of lobsters, the trap yields conch, tautog or black fish, starfish, squid eggs, skate, oyster toad fish and a seemingly endless number of bait-robbing spider crabs. Everything but the conch are put back into the water. When lobsters are scarce, conch, a tasty mollusk used in chowders, helps pay the fuel bills.

The lobsters are immediately checked for eggs, and then measured. Females with eggs are promptly returned to the water, as are any lobsters that don't measure the state mandated minimum size. Consolo checks every lobster for size, even those he knows will measure up.

"If I guessed and I guessed wrong, I'd be in trouble. Lose your license and you're done!" he said.

Legal lobsters have their claws banded to make them easier to handle, but also to stop them from fighting in the holding tanks. If a lobster loses its claw, its market value drops drastically.

Finally, the trap's bait sack is refilled, and after the boat is repositioned with the aid of depth finder, the trap is tossed back overboard. This process is repeated until all the traps are checked. During the peak season, Consolo may set over 400 traps.

Consolo uses single lobster traps in the shallower waters near the islands, a zone he calls the "inside." Full-time commercial fisherman fish the "outside" in the deeper waters of the Sound, stringing multiple traps on long lines called trawls. Their 45-foot boats are too big for the narrow channels through the islands, which suits Consolo just fine.

Noon approaches and the wind has picked up to about 10-15 knots, kicking up chop. Consolo is a skilled mariner, but he doesn't want to risk being blown onto the rocks. The decision is made to call it a day. He's checked about 125 traps in and around the islands, some three miles from shore. The diesel engine runs all morning and with fuel prices over $2.50 per gallon, if the traps come up empty, the day can be a wash. On good days, a single trap might bring up three or four lobsters. Today was slow with nearly two-thirds of the traps having come up empty. This morning's catch – 50 pounds of lobster.

In the parking lot Consolo pulls off his rubber boots and heavy socks. The temperature has risen into the 60s, but the wind makes it feel cool. Most of the parking spaces alongside the dock are filled, and people are bustling about. There's lots of cleaning up to do and gear must be put back in order for the next day on the water.  After that, Consolo will head off to his full-time job as a foreman for the Tilcon Corporation.

Stony Creek lobstering has always been unpredictable. Some years the catch is strong, and others you can barely make it worth your while. Factor in the die-off and shell disease and the future looks bleak. Still, when you hear Steve Consolo talk about what lobstering means to him, you have to believe others will succumb to its allure.

"Whether you caught good or not, it's just nice to be out. There is nothing like it. At 5 o'clock in the morning, the peace and quiet, and then you catch a sunrise -- who's better than you? Really, it doesn't get any better than that."