When the first Colonists came to Maine in the early 1600s, they found an abundance of lobsters, some of them 4 feet long.
Back then a dinner catch of North American lobster, known to biologists as Homarus americanus , “could easily be gaffed in shoal water or even plucked by hand from tidal pools,” wrote Kenneth R. Martin and Nathan R. Lipfert in “Lobstering and the Maine Coast.”
“Sometimes, after storms, lobsters were literally underfoot, piled up on beaches and tidal flats. Those were pitchforked into bushel baskets for fertilizer,” the authors wrote.
Commercial lobstering didn’t begin in Maine for another 200 years, because there was no way to keep the creatures fresh on the way to market.
Around 1820, the first sailing ships, known as “smacks,” arrived along the Maine coast and the state’s lobstering industry began.
The smack’s hull contained a tank, or “well,” through which sea water circulated while the ship was under way. This made it feasible to ship live lobsters over long distances, Martin and Lipfert say.
By 1844, entrepreneurs in Maine had begun canning lobster meat and shipping it to large U.S. and European cities. In 1880, there were 23 lobster canneries in Maine. They processed about 2 million pounds of meat, sealed in 1.5 million one-pound cans, 149,000 two-pound cans and 140,000 cans of other sizes, the authors say.
Lobster canning died out in Maine by 1895 because of the growing market for live lobsters and the adoption of regulations to protect the lobster population from overfishing.