People can unexpectedly rise to prominence on the one-minute-video app TikTok for busting out dance moves, pulling pranks on unsuspecting family members, or whipping up humorous skits.
But lobsterman Jacob Knowles has captured the attention of more than a half-million fans across the country for a different reason: He brings viewers directly onto his fishing boat as he traverses the coast of Maine, and teaches them about how one of the summer’s most popular delicacies gets from the high seas to people’s plates.
Knowles, 27, has been fishing and catching lobsters since he was a young kid, a skill that’s been passed down in his family through five generations. But he’s the first to tap into social media to create viral content about the ins and outs of the lobster trade, showing and explaining how the arduous job gets done.
“I think it’s something you don’t really get to see a lot of, and you don’t really know about,” said Knowles, who hauls lobsters off of Winter Harbor, a small fishing town of about 500 residents.
Knowles — whose fishing boat is called “F/V Rest Ash-oar,” a nod to both his wife, Ashley, and boating terminology — previously had an Instagram and YouTube account. But he dipped his toes into using TikTok last September, after one of his crewmen suggested he give it a shot.
At the beginning, he shared short videos of himself flying a Cessna plane; showing off the unusual things — like a wolffish or a blue lobster — that he’d caught; or his crew playing pranks on each other.
But interest in his content started to build after he posted a video in October of a female lobster that was carrying eggs beneath her tail.
In the clip, Knowles explained that the lobster had to be tossed back into the water due to regulations. But before doing so, she needed to have the end of her tail “punched,” or clipped.
“We’ve got an ‘egger,’ ” Knowles says in the video, which has been viewed more than 6.5 million times. “We punch their tails to mark them all, so that no fishermen can keep them. This is a breeder. Like on a farm, you wouldn’t want to kill your breeders.”
He then made a small notch in the second flipper, and threw the lobster back into the sea.
The educational aspect of the video seemed to intrigue people — and that set off an idea in Knowles’s head: Maybe he could use the platform to teach viewers about ocean sustainability, while also answering little-known questions about the industry.
“Things started picking up and followers started rolling in,” he said. “I couldn’t believe when I hit 10,000 ...then probably five days after that I was at 50,000. I thought, ‘I’d like to just keep pushing the educational stuff.’ ”
The videos that have followed include Knowles explaining the differences between male and female lobsters, how fishermen work to protect the lobster population, the ways in which the crustaceans use their claws, and how to measure and band them properly.
(He also tosses in videos of the ships and whales they’ve spotted during excursions, and once posted a viral video about rescuing a wayward bird last November that attracted significant media attention.)
These days, Knowles has more than 550,000 people following his account, checking in with him as he gets ready for what will become the busiest part of his year.
“We’re getting stuff ready now and will start fishing again seriously around May,” he said. “The fishing continues through Christmas. January to April is our off-season, and in April we start getting stuff ready again and get everything situated.”
All the lobsters that Knowles catches are sold wholesale, he said, which is the bulk of his operation and how he makes a living. But recently he’s been catching lobsters and selling them online directly to customers who may have learned about him through TikTok.
“That’s a pretty new thing,” he said.
A TikTok user named Angelina recently commented to Knowles on the app that she bought lobsters through his website, to be shipped halfway across the country.
To show just how fresh her meal would be, Knowles filmed himself catching and marking one of the lobsters that he planned to send to her, and uploaded it to his account.
“I figured you might like seeing them being caught,” Knowles said in the video, which has been viewed more than 1.6 million times.
He then pulled up a lobster trap, sifted through his catch, and marked the customer’s order with his initials.
Angelina later posted a video to her own TikTok account. In it, she opens a cardboard box filled with five lobsters from Maine, alive and kicking.
As her camera zoomed in, there, on one of the lobsters’ claws, a small mark could be seen. It read, “JK.”