Christopher White’s new book, “The Last Lobster: Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery?” landed on our desk with an ominous thump a couple of weeks ago. We called him in Santa Fe, where he’s living, to ask about how he reported his book (especially as an out-of-stater), what he finds to be optimistic about, and the role climate change plays in the future of lobstering. He also confessed to scheduling an interview at his favorite restaurant on Vinalhaven specifically for the lobster.

POP-UP STORY: White has written five books. The most recent were about fishermen (“Skipjack,” the story of the last days of a particular kind of wooden boat used for commercial fishing, specifically oyster dredging) and disappearing glaciers (“The Melting World”). For this book, he deliberately sought out a story that combined both those interests. “I looked for a story about how commercial fishing was affected by climate change. The first one that popped up on the map was the Gulf of Maine and lobstering.”

TEEN YEARS: Maine wasn’t new to White; he’d come to the state as a teenager. “I spent a lot of time in Maine, not only on the coast but at Rangeley and Lake Moosemeguntic.” He’s also a sailor, and he crewed on small boats as a young man as well. “I crewed from Camden to Vinalhaven, for example.” When he arrived in Maine to start reporting, “it was very interesting to go some of the places that I had visited at 16.” An old favorite was Vinalhaven, where he revisited his deep affection for the Harbor Gawker. “I conducted an interview there just so I could have lunch.” (The family that owned it for 40 years sold it, and a new restaurant, The Nightingale, is in the midst of opening.)

TIGHT LIPPED? Once he had the idea, his agent pitched it to St. Martin’s Press, which had published two of his earlier books. “They were intrigued by the Maine lobstering story. They snatched that right up.” His agent did warn him of one problem: She has a house in Damariscotta (we’ll forgive White for having no idea how to pronounce that), and her take was that “Maine lobstermen were never going to speak to me. That they were going to be hostile.”

ASSIMILATION: Ultimately, he visited Maine several times over the course of three years and spent nearly two full summers in Stonington – the geographic center of Maine’s lobster fishery – and fortunately for him, found that his agent was wrong. “I totally assimilated.” He even got invited to dinners at lobstermen’s houses. The book revolves around the experiences of three lobstermen. “Maybe I lucked out with the people I chose.” He did talk to some who turned him down. But one of those who said yes was Frank Gotwals, whom White contacted because he had written an opinion piece celebrating lobster for the Bangor Daily News. “He had read my book ‘Skipjack,’ and he loved it. That was a real in. We just hit it off immediately.” He also interviewed key players like Robin Alden and Ted Ames of Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries and scientists like University of Maine’s Bob Steneck and Rick Wahle. “I tried to touch base with as many key scientists as I could.”

WHAT’S YOUR SECRET? What is his best skill as an interviewer? “I think the fact that I participate. On ‘Skipjack,’ I became a crewman and actually worked the sails and dredges. When I have been out on lobster boats, I have helped band the lobsters and reel in the traps.” He also said he has the advantage of some leeway. He compressed events that took place over multiple summers into one, for instance, and his aim isn’t investigative journalism. “I just try to give the flavor of a place. I am not necessarily going to be comprehensive.” Did he show the manuscript to any of those three subjects before publication? “I ran it by some of the scientists but not the fishermen.” He said he’s always been warned not to share his manuscript with his subjects, lest they ask for too many changes. “Because it never ends. It is probably not a good idea.”


SURPRISE, SURPRISE: As he got to know Gotwals and others in the lobster fishery, he was pleased to discover more women in the fishery than he expected. “That was very exciting to witness.” He knew they they’d had their struggles. “The women that I went out with had been persecuted when they first started out. They had their traps cut and their buoys sunk.” Now, he said, “I can see that some of the women have as much respect as the men do now. It made the story for me. ‘Skipjack’ had been such a male book.” One of his major characters in “The Last Lobster” is Julie Eaton, who is a lobster (boat) captain from Deer Isle. He also spent time with Gotwals’ granddaughter, who is 14 and working as a stern man.

TOUGH TOPICS: How much did he discuss climate change with the lobstermen he interviewed? The impact climate change is having on the fishery as lobsters move further north in pursuit of cooler waters is a core theme of his book. “We talked a lot about it. But it was a slow thing. It wasn’t like the first day I met with one of my captains. I didn’t start to grill them about climate change.”

SWEEP AWAY: He found some of his subjects reluctant to pin the recent changes in lobster populations on climate change. “To make a sweeping generalization, I found that the older lobstermen were reticent about accepting climate change as a factor in the boom or bust but that younger lobstermen were more open to it.” He quotes Julie Eaton in the book as saying: “What the lobsterman fears most is coming out here one morning and finding no lobsters in his traps. No one talks about it. But that’s what we worry about.” The 15 percent decline in landings from 2016 to 2017 was hard to miss. “They might not want to talk about it a lot, but it is on their minds, certainly. That took them by surprise.”

LONG VIEW: What worries him, now that he’s developed such a fondness for the fishery and its people? “The Gulf of Maine Resource Institute has now forecast that by 2050 that (Maine’s) lobster population will shrink 42 to 60 percent. It is not just the gross amount of money they would lose. The lobstermen are so invested in bigger catches.” They’ve got bigger boats and bigger trucks they’ve got to pay for. White is also troubled by research that says the lobsters will migrate north at a rate of 43 miles per decade; his new friends in Stonington could be out of luck. Any bright side? “There are a few more wind projects off of Cape Cod, like the ones off of Vinalhaven.” He’s hoping the lobstermen come around to the idea that alternative energy sources, by slowing climate change, might help keep their prey within reach.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

Twitter: MaryPols

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