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Lobster, Shellfish and Sardine on Swan Island

After the mackerel industry had become unprofitable, the class of fishermen who had been there employed turned naturally to some other branch of the fisheries. The most profitable inducement was held out in the lobster fisheries. Few of these fish had been caught previous to 1857. They were then very abundant, especially near the shore. They were of no value except as a fisherman would occasionally catch some for use in his own family. Only the small ones were used as food; the larger ones were thrown away as unfit to be eaten. The superior quality of the lobster as a food began to be appreciated. So about the year 1857 a smack ran between Swan's Island and Boston, but she could not carry and dispose of in the market what three or four men at Swan's Island caught. Generally it was the older men, who were unable to go far from home, who were engaged in catching lobsters.

The difficulty of transporting live lobsters long distances in sailing vessels, led to the establishment of canning factories at various points, one of which was built at Old Harbor. This somewhat stimulated the business. A large number of shore fishermen forsook their former mode of fishing, and turned their attention to catching lobsters for the factory. Prices were low and the supply was usually in excess of the demand. By 1870 prices had to be raised to secure enough for the canning factories, and by 1880 the supply had been reduced so much that the canning factories to some extent were abandoned. Increased steamboat facilities made it practicable to ship live lobsters to the Boston market. In 1890 the demand had greatly exceeded the supply, and prices were consequently gradually raised.

At first only small boats were used, as lobsters could be caught in abundance near the shore. As they grew scarcer larger and larger boats were required to go farther from shore. Now the fishermen have a fine fleet of boats, valued from $100 to $600 each. O. B. Whitten, State commissioner of sea and shore fisheries, informs me that in 1876 there were one hundred and eighteen men engaged in the lobster fisheries some part of the year. The catch was 688,628 lobsters, valued at $56,008.14. In 1897 there were one hundred and forty-two men, who caught 740,967 lobsters, valued at $75,208.56. At the former date all sizes of lobsters were caught and sold, but now it is prohibited by law to sell any less than ten and one-half inches in length. In comparing the above figures it will be seen that there is not only an increase in the gross stock, but also in the catch.

The following is a report of the property engaged in lobster fisheries from this town, and is a conservative estimate;

Number of large boats, 139; valued at $20,850.
Number of small boats, 133;valued at 2,660.
Number of lobster cars, 139; valued at 1,390
Number of traps (estimated), 50 to a
man, at $1 each, 6,950.
Making the property so invested over $30,000.

The porgy fisheries for a time engaged quite a number of our fishermen, and offered luring inducements to invest capital. They were chiefly valued for the oil they contained. Suitable vessels were built, expensive nets bought; buildings and wharves were erected to provide for trying out the oils. Although these fish were so abundant, yet they were so persistently followed and caught by hundreds of small steamers, as well as by boats and vessels of every description, that they suddenly disappeared from the coast, and have never returned. Many of our townsmen lost heavily by this failure, as many had invested nearly all their property in the fishing gear and property that was left useless on their hands. Some it took years of thrift, and others never recovered from these losses.

Shell fish have always been depended upon to supply the necessities of the fishermen when all other sources have been cut off. In fact, it is doubtful if any of these islands would have been settled had it not been for this unfailing source of food supply. The Indians utilized this means of subsistence, as is seen by the immense heaps of clam shells, often forming embankments many feet high. They are also found to considerable depth in the ground, thrown there by some convulsion in nature, or by the gradual settling, caused by the weight added on top. It is said that during the greater part of one winter, owing to the severity of the weather, supplies could not be brought here; the principal food during those weeks of isolation were clams and seabirds. This species of fish has the power of rapid propagation, as it is probable that several crops are hatched and reach maturity during the year. Shell fish have been constantly dug, from the time of the earliest settlement to the present time, without any signs of exhausting the supply.

At first clams were used for food and for bait in fishing. Later they were salted in barrels and disposed of in the markets of other seaports for bait. Since lobster canning has proved unprofitable, many of these factories are canning clams, there being a good market for all that can be produced. At present clams are being shipped in the shell to the Boston market. The income received in tills town from shell fish during the year 1897 was $1,500.

A sardine factory was built at Old Harbor in 1895 by H. W. Joyce, which furnishes an excellent market for the abundance of herring, which are found more plentiful near this and adjacent islands than at any other place on the Maine coast. The income from this branch varies from $10,000 to $25,000 per year.

The fishing business will undoubtedly remain, as it has ever been in the past, the main industry in this town, as nature has placed this island in a sea rich with this resource. Other industries, such as the granite works, ice cutting, etc., may be substituted in part, but the products of the sea are more sought for every year, and while the compensation is adequate, our hardy fishermen can be relied upon to supply the market.

Additional Reading:
Fishing Industry
Commanders and their Vessels

Source: A History of Swan's Island, Maine, by H.W. Small, MD, Ellsworth Me, Hancock County Publishing Company, Printers, 1808

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