Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 2, 2018
Writer steps into fishing port and hauls out The Last Lobster
Christopher White on Stonington, lobster fishing and climate change
by Anne Berleant
In 2014, author Christopher White began visiting lobster fishing towns along the Maine coast, in search of a story. An environmental journalist, he was interested in the boom of the Maine lobster fishing industry as lobsters migrated north in search of cooler waters.
“How lobstermen were handling the glut intrigued me,” he said. “I knew from other fisheries I’d worked on that a boom was not necessarily a good thing, but bittersweet.”
In fishing, as landing numbers rise, boat prices can drop. “Lobsters coming out of our ears. The price has dropped and I can’t pay my rent,” White quotes a sternman of Captain Frank Gotwals in The Last Lobster, his book on climate change, lobsters and lobster fishing life.
As Maine’s top lobster port in recent years, Stonington was a natural focus for White, who contacted Maine Lobstermen’s Association and Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative board members, and trawled through newspaper archives in search of humans to feature alongside the lobsters.
“I wanted someone who was involved with the politics of lobstering,” he said. As an MLMC board member, Gotwals’ name came up and White gave him a call.
“Within two days I was out on his boat,” White said.
Then, he read about Captain Julie Eaton, and thought, “I’ve got to meet her,” he said. The two captains became the initial focus of White’s book. But, as White spent time in the lobster fishing community and out on Gotwals’ and Eaton’s boats, his focus shifted a bit.
“About two years [into it], I started thinking about the story differently,” he said, “in terms of generations.”
Gotwals’ step-son Jason McDonald, and his 14-year-old daughter, who helped out on McDonald’s boat, made for three generations of lobstermen, White said, and he began weaving in the younger lobsterman’s story, too. He also spent time on Captain Genevieve McDonald’s boat and with a Tenant’s Harbor lobsterman, and chronicles an annual Fishermen’s Family Fun Day on the Stonington fish pier.
In all, White spent three summers and time in spring, fall and winter in Stonington. He held The Last Lobster book launch at Stonecutters Kitchen June 24 to an overflow crowd.
The author of two previous nonfiction books, Skipjack: A History of America’s Last Sailing Oystermen, and The Melting World, on climate change and vanishing alpine glaciers, White has made a profession of interpreting other people’s lives and passions while he tells a story also of environment and science.
“It’s the question that faces every writer,” he said. “How do you step into someone’s world and tell a truth? I try to be as faithful as I can.”
His eight trips out with Gotwals and two each with Eaton and Jason McDonald are combined in the book into one trip each. He said he hopes the local fishermen understand that, as a work of narrative nonfiction, The Last Lobster is, apart from the science, his interpretation of what he heard, saw and witnessed.
“I’m looking forward to everyone’s reactions,” he said.
As far as the science aspect, the biggest surprise White found while writing his book was just how fast lobsters were migrating north.
“I knew marine species were moving to the [North and South] poles, but I had no idea what the extent was,” he said, noting that 360 species in the North Atlantic are all moving at different rates of speeds. After The Last Lobster was in galley proofs, White had to request that his publisher wait for the 2017 landing numbers, which showed a 17 percent drop, before sending the book to press.
“The lobstermen have a real challenge on their hands,” he said. “Stonington was a quarry town and then had to reinvent itself as a fishing port. They might have to do it again. If any town could do it, Stonington could.”