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These young men catch more than lobsters. They also catch a break

High school student Cris Silva, 15, has been learning to lobster aboard the Sea Smoke lobster boat in Portland, Maine.
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
High school student Cris Silva, 15, has been learning to lobster aboard the Sea Smoke lobster boat in Portland, Maine.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine is one of the least diverse states in the nation, and the fishermen in its famed lobster industry reflect that demographic reality. But this summer, a small group of Black young men started to learn the trade.

At 15, Cristiano Silva thought he might spend the summer working at a McDonald's near his home on the outskirts of Portland, Maine, and help with household expenses.

Instead, he found himself on a lobster boat called the Sea Smoke, out among Casco Bay's rocky islands. One breezy day on the boat last month, Cris scrunched his nose and placed a fist-size mesh bait bag full of smelly herring inside a wire lobster trap.

"I like it, I like it. The only thing I can't stand is the smell of the fish," he says. "I'm not going to lie. That's what's kind of kicked my butt. I can't handle it right now."

Cris was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he was still a toddler when his mother emigrated here a decade ago. This spring he and three other Black teens were recruited from area high schools to learn how to lobster in a new program called "Lift All Boats."

Sea Smoke returns to the dock at Portland Pier.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
/
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
Sea Smoke returns to the dock at Portland Pier.
Josh Lamour (left) and Jeff Holden place rubber bands on lobster claws aboard Sea Smoke.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
/
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
Josh Lamour (left) and Jeff Holden place rubber bands on lobster claws aboard Sea Smoke.

Guided by experienced volunteers, the young men started from scratch. They spent their first day painting foam buoys in distinctive bright colors, tying them to traps and then heading out into the bay and dropping them to the seafloor.

Every week after, they went back out to haul up the traps to see what they caught.

"The whole thing that's a little tricky is getting the, what's called the buoy out of the water," Cris says, as he angles a hooked pole off the boat's side to catch a buoy line. "'Cause sometimes, right, it's a weird angle and you kind of miss it."

Luke's Lobster co-founder shows them the ropes

Capt. Jeff Holden, a volunteer with the program, shows the students how, once they get ahold of the buoy lines, they can thread them into an electric pulley that helps to bring the attached lobster traps up from the sea.

"Don't get your fingers caught between here and the hauler, 'cause it'll pull your hand right into the hauler," he warns. "You can actually cut a finger off if you're not careful."

Luke's Lobster was founded by Jeff Holden with his son Luke and partner Ben Conniff.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
/
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
Luke's Lobster was founded by Jeff Holden with his son Luke and partner Ben Conniff.

Holden is a longtime fisherman and lobster dealer who with his son Luke and partner Ben Conniff founded the Luke's Lobster company in 2009.

Conniff says that Maine's seafood packing plants are some of the most diverse places in the state, with many immigrant workers from Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa.

"But when you think about that most-prized job in the industry — getting to go out and catch those lobsters yourself, you don't see any diversity," Conniff says. "You see a sea of white."

Conniff says that's not been driven by deliberate racism, but by the geographic isolation of Maine's coastal communities and by conservation policies that limit available commercial lobstering licenses to discourage overfishing.

Cris and Josh aboard Sea Smoke in Portland, Maine. Josh holds up a pregnant lobster, which has eggs on its underside.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
/
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
Cris and Josh aboard Sea Smoke in Portland, Maine. Josh holds up a pregnant lobster, which has eggs on its underside.

There are more than 6,500 licenses issued, although the number of boats actively fishing is far fewer. Many lobstermen in the year-round fishery hold onto their licenses even when they aren't actively harvesting.

Lobstering can be a lucrative trade to learn

Lobster populations appear to be dropping off from historic highs a few years ago, and the industry is under pressure from conservationists and federal regulators to radically reduce the use of trap rope that can entangle critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Still, in a good year it can be a very lucrative enterprise: In 2021, when pandemic-driven market trends were driving up seafood prices in general, Maine harvesters landed lobster worth a record $725 million.

The only way to avoid years on the state's waiting list for a commercial license is to start an apprenticeship by the age of 18, logging 1,000 hours on the water.

That usually means a kid from a coastal lobstering community, where a father, aunt, or friend of the family is an active lobsterman and willing to make a place on their boat.

Cris is guided by Luke Holden while steering Sea Smoke.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
/
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
Cris is guided by Luke Holden while steering Sea Smoke.
Ben Conniff, co-owner of Luke's Lobster, aboard Sea Smoke in Portland, Maine.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
/
Vanessa Leroy for NPR
Ben Conniff, co-owner of Luke's Lobster, aboard Sea Smoke in Portland, Maine.

"There just is not access for someone who's not already an industry insider," Conniff says.

That's where Conniff and his company are trying to play a new role, by putting a boat and gear and fishing expertise specifically at the service of young Mainers of color.

They worked with schoolteachers like Halima Noor to recruit the program's first class.

"I had never heard of a lobsterman that was a person of color," she says.

Noor, who was born in Somalia, says the doors of opportunity don't always swing wide for young Black people in Maine — although she's not expecting the lobstering program to change the world.

"But if they're just like, 'We got to do something that no other kid of color in Maine got to do and this was great, guys,' I'd be like 'Thank you, that's all I wanted for you to get,' " Noor says

The oldest of the apprentice lobstermen, 17-year-old Joshua Lamour, is a promising football player who's excited about college recruiters who've been turning up lately. But he says the lobstering experience is also opening new ways to think about his future.

"And also just being alone out on the ocean sometimes, just doing your job and getting work done and you're really focused on nothing else," he says. "You can leave everything else behind. It's good. It's very therapeutic, I think."

Josh and Cris both emphasize that a key part of their decision to join the program was the prospect of getting paid for their share of the catch.

Although, it's actually been a tough year that way. The price that harvesters got at the dock remained stubbornly low this season. Cris notes that the price can seesaw pretty wildly.

"Now it's like $5 per pound, so it's like a little disappointing," he said that day at sea in August. "So it really depends on how lucky you get. ... Last time I was pretty lucky. I got some good ones. I made some good money."

The coastline near the Portland Pier, as seen from aboard Sea Smoke.
/ Vanessa Leroy for NPR
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Vanessa Leroy for NPR
The coastline near the Portland Pier, as seen from aboard Sea Smoke.

On that particular day, there was still some fishing luck in the offing. As they hauled glistening lobster traps up from the sea, Josh, Cris and the other students were frequently rewarded by the sight of keeper-size lobster scrabbling around inside.

"Ooh, this one's so heavy, I caught so many lobsters," Cris says.

"Ohhh, big catch here, baby" Josh observes.

Cris and Josh say they will encourage siblings and schoolmates to join the program next summer. They plan to attend again, too, and they are even talking about getting a small boat and going into business together.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.