Dirigo Elementary School fourth-trader Holly Ellis giggles while Doug Barber of Mexico helps her put on gear worn by a stern man on a lobster boat. Barber spoke at the Peru school Friday about what it’s like being a lobsterman. (Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times)

Doug Barber, a gifted and talented teacher at Meroby Elementary School in Mexico, talks to Dirigo Elementary fourth-graders Friday about what it’s like to be a lobsterman. He worked on a lobster boat with his uncle when he was younger, he said. (Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times)

Former lobster boat stern man Doug Barber instructs Dirigo Elementary School fourth-grader Holly Ellis on how to open a lobster trap and fasten a bait bag in it during a presentation at the Peru school Friday. Barber is a gifted and talented teacher at Meroby Elementary School in Mexico. (Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times)

Dirigo Elementary School fourth-grader Holly Ellis places a band on a claw of an imitation lobster during a presentation at the Peru school Friday. (Bruce Farrin/Rumford Falls Times)

PERU — Students at Dirigo Elementary School recently learned about life aboard a lobster boat from a teacher who spent his youth hauling traps with his uncle.

“Most lobstermen call themselves fishermen, not lobstermen, because very often they do other kinds of fishing, too,” Doug Barber, a gifted and talented teacher at Meroby Elementary School in Mexico, told fourth-graders in Kristi Holmquist’s Maine studies class Friday.

He asked a student to volunteer to be a stern man and Holly Ellis raised her hand, even though she and others had no idea what it is.

Classmates and Ellis giggled as Barber helped her put on the gear a stern man wears to stay dry – boots, overalls, rain jacket, hat and gloves — in the back of the boat.

Also known as a deckhand, assists a lobsterman by baiting, emptying, stacking and dropping traps. Because he has no lobster license, he can’t haul traps or pilot the boat, Barber said.

“As a lobsterman, I have to deal with Mother Nature, which basically controls what I do and when I start my day,” Barber said. “In the winter, the day is going to start later. In the summer, the day is going to start earlier.

“I want to be out there when it’s light enough to see, and as early as possible. I want to time it so that I’m out by my traps about the time the sun is coming up,” he said.

Barber said one of the first things a lobsterman does is check the weather.

“Certain weather makes it good for fishing. Certain weather makes it yucky for fishing. Certain weather makes it horrendous for fishing,” he said. 

He listens to the marine forecast to get conditions on the ocean.

“It’s a little different than the forecast you listen to,” Barber told students. “There’s three parts of the weather I’m really interested in: how big the seas are, the wind and the visibility.”

Barber said most fishermen nowadays do not live on the ocean because they can’t afford to.

“I’m going to get into my truck and drive to the wharf. And along the way, I’m going to pick up my stern man. We’re going to get down to the dock and get the boat ready. My job as captain is to get it going and drive it out to my traps,” he said.

On the way out, the stern man fills a couple dozen old-fashioned bait bags made of twine. Most people in Maine use big herring for bait, because it’s oily and can spread out in the water, with the smell attracting lobster.

Barber said he knows his buoys and traps because they’re marked by his colors and registration number.

After the traps are brought onboard, the stern man takes out the old bait bag and replaces it with a full one. Meanwhile, the captain takes the lobsters out, closes the traps are lowers them into the ocean. The stern man, meanwhile, measures the lobsters to see if they’re legal to keep.

Bands are put on their claws, “not to protect us, but so it doesn’t hurt the other lobsters in the tank. Lobsters are cannibals. They will eat each other,” Barber said

Sometimes he might have to throw back as many as 15 lobsters during one haul because they’re too small, he said.

“But there’s a part of me that’s OK with it,” he said “Those babies are the future. Lobstering is what we call a sustainable industry. As long as you don’t catch them faster than they can reproduce or grow, then you’ll always have lobsters.”

Barber said in Maine lobsters that are too big also can’t be kept.

“Scientists have figured out that the really big lobsters are good at reproducing. So once a lobster has reached a certain size, it’s protected. Its job is to make baby lobsters. And lobsters can live 50, 60, 70 years,” he said.

Lobstermen also check lobsters to see if they’re carrying eggs. If so, they carve a tiny v-notch on them to indicate they are breeding females and they throw them back into the ocean.

“This is another Maine law. That’s why there’s still a lot of lobsters in Maine, because we do these things to help the population grow,” Barber said.

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