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500 pounds a day to survive: A lobsterman races the calendar in a COVID-disrupted season

Steven Holler and Jay Galinauskas emptied traps and baited them on the deck of Holler's lobster boat, the November Gale.Kristen Chin

Steven Holler walked off the back of his rumbling lobster boat, the November Gale, and stood on the pier. “Man, traffic must be really bad today,” he said. It was 6 a.m., and his 28-year-old deckhand, Jay Galinauskas, was late. Holler scanned the darkness. They should be on the water by now.

It was October, just six weeks before the end of the season — six weeks for Holler to make the money he needed to get through the winter. Even in ordinary years, fall was a money-making sprint for lobster fishers like him, a few fruitful months when lobster both were plentiful and sold for high prices, and when lobstermen either earned enough to survive another year or they didn’t.

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But this year was exceptional, thrown into chaos by the pandemic. Restaurants had closed and lobster prices plummeted. Some predicted doom for the industry. Holler could have opted to sit out the season, collecting unemployment and COVID relief checks. In fact he had stayed home in the spring. But, he was restless. He didn’t like the idea of sitting at home. So in June, Holler gambled and gave up government assistance in order to put his boat back in the water.

By late summer, surging demand from lobster meat processors had buoyed prices, and it looked like his gamble could pay off. But he had lost valuable time, and now Holler figured he still needed to clear another $30,000 by the season’s end to make it. By his reckoning, that meant catching 500 pounds of lobster for at least 15 days of fishing from here on out. He couldn’t do that if he wasn’t out there.

He paced onto the boat and back out to the pier. Finally, at about 6:30, Galinauskas appeared out of the darkness and immediately slipped away again, heading around the corner to pick up the salmon skeletons Holler uses for bait.

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Jay Galinauskas sorted lobsters and the salmon carcasses used to bait lobster traps aboard the November Gale.Kristen Chin

Holler untied the rope holding the November Gale to the pier and slowly maneuvered the boat into a position where Galinauskas could lower the nine bins of bait onto the boat. Some of the bait was three days old and smelled like rotting trash. Holler’s mood was lightening. He chuckled, pointing at a bin. “This one’s fresh, but this one’s due for some Social Security.”

He eased the November Gale away from the pier, and at last they were underway, chugging past South Boston’s Cardinal Medeiros Dock and into the harbor. Holler, 57, with a buzz cut, jeans and tennis shoes, steered the boat with one hand and held a breakfast sandwich with the other. He sipped a Mountain Dew every few bites.

As they moved toward the Harbor Islands. A gull landed on the boat. “Ozzy!” Holler called. He had named the gull after heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne because the bird had a metal ring through its nose. Holler thinks it must have been someone’s idea of a prank.

A visit from "Ozzy" the gull.Kristen Chin

About half an hour later, the November Gale arrived at the first trawl, a string of 25 traps resting on the harbor floor. Holler gently steered the boat back and forth, trying to position it next to a buoy connected to his traps. “This is like a video game,” he said.

The men changed into waders and boots and dragged the bait bins deeper into the hull. Galinauskas swung a metal table with long slots for sorting lobsters onto two of the stacks.

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Holler used a hook to catch the trawl’s buoy and fix its line to the hauler, a wheel mounted on the boat that pulls the traps up from the ocean. With the push of a lever, the hauler pulled the first trap to the surface.

Galinauskas and Holler heaved the trap onto the boat and unlatched the door. A few lobsters wildly flapped their tails as Galinauskas pulled them out. He tossed a couple of them onto the table and threw a few back into the water. They were too big or too small to sell.

While Galinauskas dealt with the lobsters, Holler handled the bait. He dumped the spent salmon bones from the bait holder onto the deck. They clinked like plastic coins as they fell, and Holler replaced them with fresh bait. Lobsters out and bait in, the trap is done.

Galinauskas shut the trap door and slid it to the stern. Using the momentum of the waves, he swung the trap from the banister to the floor of the boat. He arranged the traps in the order they came. The men work quietly and smoothly.

Jay Galinauskas and Steven Holler hoist a trap into the boat.Kristen Chin

About half an hour later, when they had finished the trawl, Holler dropped the first trap back into the ocean. The rope connecting it to the other traps drew taught and pulled each, one after the other, seamlessly back into the ocean.

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As the boat rumbled toward the second trawl, Holler asked how many lobsters they had so far. “Thirty,” Galinauskas replied. Holler recorded it in his notebook. “This haul was OK,” he said. He sighed. “We’re on the right track.”

He never really stops doing that, the math of how much he’s got to catch to stay afloat another year, or the math of how much he spends each year.

He had fished since he was 18. He bought his father’s boat, gear, and everything else for $100,000 in 2003. “I’ll never see that $100,000 again,” he said. His retirement plan is the boat, whatever he can get for it when the time comes, and only if there are any lobstermen left to buy it.

“There are no new guys pickin’ up the torch,” Galinauskas said. The deckhand said he wants to be a real-estate agent. As much as he loves fishing, the work is too hard, the overhead too high, the profit too low for him to ever buy his own boat. Even Holler, who has over 30 years of experience in the industry, said his bank account “just makes it” to when the season starts again in mid-May.

Deckhand Jay Galinauskas does not plan to remain in lobstering long term.Kristen Chin

Holler has seen a lot of lobstermen leave the industry. “I used to have to dodge buoys on my way out,” he says. Now, getting to his trawl is a straight shot.

By mid-morning, they had caught 206 lobsters and were about to start the seventh of 12 trawls they aimed to hit before the day was over. He wouldn’t know the final weight of his catch until they were back at the dock, but he probably needed about 450 lobsters to make it. The remaining traps needed to yield plenty of lobster if Holler was going to meet his goal.

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“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon. Roll the dice!” He cast an imaginary pair of dice into the water before using the hauler to pull the traps to the surface, “If it ain’t turnin’, y’ain’t earnin’,” Holler said. Traps 1 and 2 came up empty. Trap 3 had four lobsters. Trap 4 was empty. Twenty-one traps later, they only had 244 lobsters.

Trawls eight and nine yielded about 20 lobsters each. Trawl 10 was slightly better and had 39. Trawl 11: 51. No matter what, Holler refilled every single trap with salmon guts: “You’ll have days when you get nothing, but you won’t catch anything without bait,” he said.

At 12:28 p.m., the men finished their final trawl. Holler wrote the count in his spiral notebook: 82, for a total of 461 lobsters, enough. “It’s good, I’ll take it,” he said. He turned the boat back toward shore.

When the boat reached the pier an hour and a half later, Galinauskas retrieved several plastic crates. The men piled lobsters by the armful into them, stopping to toss a few dead ones to the water.

Holler drove the boat to the dealer, who weighed the day’s haul: 550 pounds. Holler’s had better days, but he says big hauls usually only happen two to three times per year. He’s satisfied for today.

The dealer cut Holler a check for $2,887. Minus the fuel, bait, and labor, he’ll keep about $2,000.

It’s almost 2 p.m. and Holler still needs to clean the boat. He sighs at another day gone. “At least I don’t have to stay late and fix the boat today,” he said.