It’s a late August afternoon and the fishing vessel Sea Smoke bounces through the waters of Casco Bay.

Wiley Muller, the captain, steadies the 32-foot lobster boat alongside a purple-and-gold painted buoy, which is connected by rope to a submerged trap a few hundred feet off Willard Beach in South Portland.

Carlos Fra-Nero, 17, dips the gaff into the water to retrieve the rope. Once it’s secured to the hydraulic hauler, he waits for the trap to surface.

“It feels heavy,” Muller says with a smile.

The trap emerges, and Carlos grabs it with both hands and sets it on the starboard rail. Next to him is 16-year-old Zeke Iraoya. The two work in tandem to remove the lobsters, tossing them into a crate where they will be measured and banded – if they are deemed keepers.

After Zeke replaces the empty bait bag, Carlos waits for the OK from Muller and pushes the trap back into the water with a confident rocking motion so that it lands on its bottom and sinks evenly.


Joshua Lamour, 18, feeds the buoy line out after pushing a trap overboard. The apprentices had taken the lobsters out and put them in a fresh bait bag. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Luke Holden, co-founder of Luke’s Lobster, sits at the back of the boat watching. Two months ago, when Carlos, Zeke, and 16 other high school students joined the seafood company’s Lift All Boats summer program, Holden would have been offering instruction, or even helping pull traps or band lobster claws. On this day, he didn’t have much to do.

“They all work as a team now. Everyone has a task, and they embrace it,” Holden says.

This summer marked the second year of the Luke’s Lobster apprenticeship program, which was conceived to give nonwhite teenagers in Greater Portland an opportunity to learn the industry.

Most apprentices need gear, access to a boat, and mentorship – resources that are typically available only to those already in the industry. In other words, unless you come from a family of lobstermen, systemic barriers are tough to overcome. Consequently, there aren’t many Black people working in Maine’s signature industry.

Ana Sebastião, center, watches as Patricio Bensenda left, and Amelia Biongo Futxeca tied a knot in a buoy line at Portland Pier in July. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Luke’s wanted to change that, or at least open the door to young people of color who might be interested. In the 14 years since the company was founded, it has pursued an ethos that balances community and profit, and Lift All Boats is an extension of that.

In the first year, four students participated. This year, the number grew to 18, and already, Holden, Muller, and Ben Conniff, one of Luke’s other co-founders, are looking for ways to sustain and even grow the program, which is the only one like it in the state.


“I think we have an opportunity to see what worked well and build on that,” Conniff says.

Back on the boat, Carlos has finished hauling his five traps. It’s a big catch – more than a dozen pounds of crustacean that he will sell when the Sea Smoke returns to Portland Pier.

Sixteen-year-old George Mbungu is up next. His traps are set back toward Cushing and Peaks islands. There is a friendly competition among the six students on the boat this afternoon, even though they know they have no control over how many lobsters land in their traps.

“I guess I’m playing for a second,” he says, side-eying a smiling Carlos, who is sitting on the stern still buoyed by his haul.

“You never know,” Holden says. “That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.”

Ali Jalil, 16, stands at the bow of the Sea Smoke as it pulls into dock on the Portland waterfront in August. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer



It’s lunchtime in early June on Portland Pier, and patrons are seated at picnic tables outside Luke’s Lobster waiting on lobster rolls and fried clams.

Nearby, three groups of high school students are painting buoys.

Each has signed up to spend 40-plus hours working as an apprentice on a lobster boat over 12 weeks. Their task for the day is to paint 10 buoys that will serve as markers for their traps. They can pick whatever colors they want.

Josh Lamour is noticeably ahead of the others. His buoys are blue on top and red on bottom, the same colors he chose last year. The 18-year-old is one of two returning participants. He graduated from South Portland High School in May and is headed to Husson University in Bangor this fall.

“It was something I had never done before, but it went better than I expected,” Lamour said of his experience last year. “It’s a lot of hard work.”

From left, Cris Silva, 16, Mariano Prado, 15, Zeke Iraoya, 16, Jojo Silva, 15, and George Mbungu, 16, sit on the back of the Sea Smoke as it motors through Casco Bay on its return to Portland after an afternoon of lobstering in July. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Next to Lamour, 15-year-old Angela Kabisa paints her buoys pink. She gets a little paint on her jeans.


“This will wash off, right?” she asks no one in particular and doesn’t get an answer.

Angela just finished her freshman year at South Portland High School, where she was a member of the sailing club and enjoyed being on the water. Most of the other students had no maritime experience.

Angela was 8 when she came to the U.S. from Angola with her parents in 2016. They lived in Biddeford for a few years before settling in South Portland, one of many Maine communities that have welcomed immigrant families. Angela said she feels more comfortable there.

“I was the only Black girl in school (in Biddeford),” she said.

On the pier, on this day, Angela is not alone, and that’s by design. Luke’s owners started Lift All Boats in hopes of bringing diversity to what has long been a homogeneous industry.

Flora Magaya, 18, holds a lobster while Ali Jalil, 16, puts a rubber band on a claw. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Like many Maine lobstermen, Holden grew up in the industry. Both his grandfather and father were lobstermen, and he worked on boats as a teen and through college.


The company was born when Holden was working as a financial analyst on Wall Street and missing his home. He wanted something that reminded him of Maine and went looking for a lobster roll, without success. He hatched an idea to bring an authentic lobster shack to New York City and soon teamed up with Conniff, who had been working as a freelance food writer.

Now, Luke’s has 30 locations across the world, including on Portland Pier overlooking the harbor, and a separate supply company that buys lobster from Maine fishermen.

Conniff said the company’s apprenticeship program costs about $150,000 to run, which includes all the gear. Some of the cost is borne by Luke’s, and some are raised through donations from businesses, foundations, and individuals who share its goals.

Wiley Muller watches as Ali Jalil measures a lobster to see if it’s a keeper aboard the Sea Smoke in Casco Bay. Muller and Ben Conniff led a group of 18 high school students through a lobstering apprenticeship program over the summer. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Carlos, who lives in Lewiston but goes to school in Portland, said that although Maine’s demographics are changing slowly, he’s still mindful of the state’s whiteness, especially on the waterfront. He’s already thinking about returning next summer.

“I always try to connect with people of color here because I know it can be tough to be in a minority,” he said.



It’s an early morning in late June, and the rain has started. Gulls are squawking, and the smell of fish is strong. Most boats are still tethered to the docks around Portland Pier.

Josh is tying his buoys to traps and giving some help to Mariano Leon Prado, 15. Precision is key. The rope needs to be secure, or the buoy could slip away and a trap could be lost. A lost trap is lost money.

After he finishes, Josh pauses and puts his hands to his nose. His face shifts into a grimace that says he’s still not used to the smell.

Josh and Mariano have moved on to preparing bait bags. This involves stuffing dead pogies – small oily fish – into mesh bags and cinching the bags tightly. Each lobster trap gets a bag. That’s what entices the crustaceans to crawl in.

Flora Magaya, 18, arrives, and Muller calls out to her like an old friend as he makes room on the boat for all the traps that need to be set.


Muller is a teacher at Baxter Academy but spends his summers doing a variety of maritime jobs, including lobstering and captaining pleasure cruises. He’s spent much of his life on the water, and his knowledge and experience teaching made him a perfect fit when Holden and Conniff were building the program last year.

At one point, Flora asks, “It doesn’t rain like this all the time, does it?” No one answers.

As the drizzle turns to downpour, the teenagers don their oil skins and boots. Muller looks out to the water, where a layer of fog has yet to burn off.

“It’s not too bad out there,” he says, even as a layer of standing water sloshes around on the Sea Smoke’s deck.

The Lift All Boats program is meant to remove any barriers for participants. Some don’t have transportation to get to Portland Pier, so Luke’s arranges for a taxi.

On this morning, the taxi service forgot to pick up two students, and Conniff had to call and sort it out. They finally arrived at about 9:15, putting the crew about an hour behind.


The Sea Smoke motors out through Portland harbor in July, carrying teens who participated in the Lift All Boats apprenticeship program. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Ana Sebastiao and Patricio Cruz Bensenda, both 15 and from South Portland, get ready fast. Within minutes, the fishing vessel is pulling away from Portland Pier and out into Casco Bay.

The rain doesn’t let up as they spend the next two hours cruising around the harbor looking for spots to set their traps. Conniff and Muller mark the locations on the boat’s GPS, and they narrate what they are doing. Despite the heavy rain, the students are actively listening and asking questions.

Once back at the pier, the students scrub the boat down and change out of their gear to go to Luke’s for lunch, which is included as part of the program.

Most of the students order popcorn chicken and burgers.

“Don’t any of you want lobster?” Conniff asks.

Zeke Iraoya, 16, lifts a lobster out of the live well into a bucket. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer



It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-July, and the crew of five has their waterproof gear on as they wait for their captain.

Conniff arrives and instructs them to start filling bait bags. This is not their favorite task. The pogies are slimy and rancid.

Because the Sea Smoke is only so big, the 18 participants of Lift All Boats are split into three groups. Each student goes out once a week.

Conniff said they have talked about raising money to buy another boat for future years.

On this morning, there is a guest aboard: Jackie Summers, the founder and president of Sorel, a specialty liquor inspired by his homeland of Barbados. Luke’s uses Summers’ liquor in one of its drinks, called the Sea Smoke. Every time someone orders the cocktail, $1 of the proceeds goes to support Lift All Boats.

It’s one of a handful of ways Luke’s has found to subsidize the program.


Jojo Silva, 15, rests his head in his hand as Carlos Fra-Nero, 17, looks out over Casco Bay while the two return to Portland after an afternoon of lobstering on Casco Bay in July. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Summers recalls how he jumped at the chance to be a sponsor. “It was the quickest ‘yes’ I’ve ever said.”

Out on the water, the boat stops to pick up a crew member, Chadai Gatembo. The 18-year-old lives on Peaks Island, about a 10-minute ride across the harbor from Portland Pier. Of all the students, Chadai is perhaps the most comfortable on the water.

Patricio pulls his traps up first. One of the lobsters has a coating of black on its belly. Eggs. Thousands of them. Muller explains to the students that the lobster has to go back. Each of the students has a close look before Patricio tosses it over.

Egg-bearing females are not allowed to be kept by law. It’s a lobsterman’s responsibility to put a notch in the tail of each egg-bearing female before throwing it back. That way, if it ends up in another trap, others will know to throw it back because it’s an actively breeding female.

In one of Chadai’s traps are three lobsters. It’s a good sign, and Muller says it means they are on the move. Ideally, he tells the students, that lobstermen want to set their traps in 35-40 feet of water. Lobsters will crawl along the ocean floor at that depth, increasing the odds of coming across a trap.

Patricio Bensenda throws back a lobster that was too small to keep while checking his trap aboard the Sea Smoke in August. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The sun is high in the sky as Amelia Biongo Futxeca gets her turn.


The first trap comes up with two lobsters. She reaches in to grab one but drops it into a crate, which they call “the pit,” after it starts to squirm. She lets out a squeal.

As they head back to the pier for lunch, Amelia is a little seasick. She slowly walks to where Ana is sitting and puts her head on Ana’s lap. Ana strokes Amelia’s purple and black braids, and they speak to each other in Portuguese.

“Let’s go sell some lobster,” Conniff says.

Ana Sebastiao, 15, left, and Amelia Biongo Futxeca, 16, carry a lobster trap along Portland Pier in July. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Inside Luke’s buying station, the students unload their catches and separate the lobsters by rubber band color indicating whose trap they came from.

Ana hauled the most this day – 8 pounds of lobster worth $36.80.

Along with lunches at Luke’s, the students also get paid a stipend each day and get to keep whatever they make from selling lobster. This summer, the rate ranged from $3.50 to $4.75 per pound. On good days, students can take home $100 or more.


Lunches also often include a guest speaker who talks to the students about a different aspect of maritime industries, or business in general. During the season, students heard from Maine Celtics President Dajuan Eubanks; two representatives from the women-run, Biddeford-based Atlantic Sea Farms; and Luke’s Lobster’s top financial officer, who led a personal finance session.

“We want to teach them about more than just lobstering – but how to succeed in business,” Conniff explains.

On this day, Summers tells the students the story of how he founded his business. The New Yorker had a cancer scare several years ago and decided to leave his job and launch the business using a recipe he’d been making in his kitchen for friends and family. When he got his distillery license, he was the first Black person in the country to do so. He sells Sorel all over the world.

His advice to the students was simple: Find something you love, and go do that thing.

Later, Summers said he’s proud of what Luke’s has done with Lift All Boats.

“They created opportunity where none existed before,” he said.


Ali Jalil, 16, carries a lobster trap on the Portland waterfront to the Sea Smoke, the lobster boat used by the Lift All Boats apprenticeship program. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


It’s a warm afternoon in mid-August and Portland Pier is packed with tourists.

Holden wraps up an interview for a food travel show so he can join Muller and the students. There are only two weeks left before students return to school.

The morning crew had come and gone, and the afternoon group climbs aboard – Zeke, George, and Carlos, along with Jojo Silva, 15, Cris Silva, 16, both Deering High School students, and Ali Jalil, 16, who attends Casco Bay High School.

The six boys have turned their weekly lobstering sessions into a competition. Earlier in the summer, they instituted a rule that anyone who falls asleep on the boat will be woken up to a pogie on his face.

They are all clearly at home now on the water.


From left, Amelia Biongo Futxeca, 16, Ben Conniff, Patricio Bensenda, 15, and Chadai Gatembo, 18, gather gear and fill bait bags while aboard the Sea Smoke. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Muller eases the boat out of the harbor and past Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse near Willard Beach. This is where Carlos’ traps are waiting. There is heavy traffic and big waves are rocking the boat, but the students are unfazed. They don’t hang on to anything.

A few feet away, George is filling a mesh bag with pogies. Muller asks if he wants gloves.

“I don’t need gloves,” George says.

The group moves efficiently to haul Carlos’ six traps. He has set the bar high. More than a dozen keepers, including one that appears to be close to 2 pounds.

“I don’t know if I like you guys fishing in my area,” Holden jokes. He has several traps there as well.

Muller navigates the Sea Smoke to an area between Peaks and Great Diamond islands as some of the students talk about going back to school and PSAT scores.


Willa Morales, 16, lets a buoy line feed through her hand after pushing her trap overboard. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Zeke and Cris are playfully arguing over whose traps will be more full when Zeke drops the gaff in the water trying to hook a buoy. There is a brief moment of panic, but the tool doesn’t sink right away and he’s able to lean over and retrieve it.

Muller turns from the wheel. “Make sure you get the buoy on the block first, and then you can talk trash,” he tells them.

Other than Carlos, the students aren’t catching much.

“You guys have only known feast, no famine,” Muller says after more traps come up empty.

But the sun is shining, and the ocean breeze cuts the heat just enough.

Patrico Bensenda, 15, laughs while Ben Conniff tells him how to fasten a rope to a cleat on a dock on the Portland waterfront. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

George, whose family came to Maine a few years back from the Democratic Republic of Congo, reflects on his summer.


“Whatever happens, I can say I’m a lobsterman,” he says.

The program grew exponentially from year one to year two, and now Luke’s owners have to figure out how to keep it going. Conniff and Muller said one idea they have is to create an advanced crew for returning participants who can fish more traps and fish in new areas.

Several of the participants this year say they want to do it again next year.

“I don’t know of a better summer program,” Carlos said.

All of the participants end up earning their student licenses, which means they can work on any boat or crew that will have them and fish some of their own traps.

Ali Jalil, 16, checks to see that a lobster is not an egg-bearing female. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The number of lobster licenses is strictly limited by the state. Student license holders can work toward their full commercial licenses by logging 1,000 hours before they turn 20 or, if they attend college, by the time they turn 23. It’s the only way to avoid the state’s long waiting list for a commercial license. Some students start as young as 8 years old.


It’s a big commitment, but Conniff said he could see some of the Lift All Boats participants going that far.

“I think skill-wise, they all could,” Muller adds.

On the way back, the crew begins hosing down and scrubbing the deck without being asked. Occasionally, they spray each other with the hose.

Ali pulls the lobsters from the boat’s live well and piles them in two 5-gallon buckets to transport to the selling station.

The Sea Smoke is still 10 minutes from the pier, and it looks the way it did when they left.

While the others sit on the side of the boat taking a deserved rest, Ali and Jojo climb to the bow and sit with their legs stretched out as Portland Harbor comes into view.

Mariano Prado, 15, looks for his buoy while the lobster boat Sea Smoke motors through Casco Bay. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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