Chapter 15 -- Part 5

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For most of this century, Hampton's fishermen have been lobster men, selling their catch locally for sale at Hampton Beach restaurants. The original center of activity was the fish houses, where the men rowed offshore and set their traps. Lobsters were once economical, although a Portsmouth newspaper correspondent didn't think so in May 1890, when readers were told, "Lobsters are scarce and high, retailing for eight and ten cents each." Just a month later, the correspondent wrote, "Mr. J. G. Higgins secured 300 lbs. of lobsters this morning at North Beach; one day last week he got 350 lbs." In April 1893, newspaper readers learned, "The lobster business promises to be brisk on the Ocean side of the new Sea-View Avenue [Ocean Boulevard north of Winnacunnet Road] the coming season by the competition of five or six of our stalwart fishermen; but the old time winter fishing seems like a lost art." Clearly the style of fishing was changing, as indicated by the importance of the following figures for 1901 for Rockingham County, which probably included Rye and Portsmouth harbors as well as Hampton: 40 fishermen with 40 boats, the latter worth $1,520; 2,501 traps worth $3,515; shore equipment valued at $925; total investment is $5,960. Some 205,122 pounds of lobsters were caught for a value of $19,078.

Nevertheless, in July 1902, newspapers reported a severe scarcity of lobsters, "...and hotels have been obliged to cut the item from their menus. Every year lobsters are scarce in July and two weeks in August but this year are scarcer than ever before."

The shortage of the lobsters and the increasing value of the catch led some fishermen to ignore the lobster laws. In July 1904, state Fish and Game Commissioner Clark raided Hampton River and the fish houses in search of less-than-legal-length lobsters, commonly called "shorts." Displaying the independence for which lobstermen have become famous, "the owner of Blake's fish house objected to admitting Mr. Clark and his deputy and demanded the commissioner's warrant. The result was a pitch battle in which a considerable number of citizens joined.... One man was knocked down by a blow from an oar and others were very roughly handled." The following week the News-Letter reported, "Lewis Moulton, Alvin Rowe. T. A. Howland, and Joseph Blake were arrested Sunday morning for short lobsters. Rowe had 84 shorts and threatened the game wardens with a shotgun before surrendering. Blake and Howland had 98 shorts, Moulton but one. Rowe was found guilty of ten shorts, fined $70.50 but he charged the officers with brutally assaulting him when making the arrest and Judge Shute found sufficient evidence to hold the officers over for Superior Court."

In May 1914, Benjamin F. Norton was arrested for short lobsters as officers seized 28 shorts from his wheelbarrow. Norton was fined $29 and costs. A few days later, about 40 lobstermen met at the Beach fire station and voted unanimously to stop taking short lobsters and to cooperate with the commissioners in ending the practice. The lobstermen said they had a policy of bringing in all lobsters caught, then returning to the sea the shorts, but state law did not permit that practice. An advisory board was appointed to assist the commissioners: Charles Palmer for North Beach, Joseph Dudley for the Central district, and Everett Dow for the island district.

The taking of short lobsters did not end, however, and it became an issue again and again. In 1947, for example, the local fishermen called a June meeting to discuss the taking of short lobsters. A few days later, the newly formed New Hampshire Legal Lobster Association, composed of fishermen, sportsmen, and local civic and business leaders, charged that local conservation officer Alfred Jenness had been "framed" by a ring of Portsmouth and Rye Harbor fishermen who were taking shorts. Association members complained that the lobster catch had declined since 1945, when a daily haul from 160 traps netted 450 pounds of lobsters, to 1947 when the same number of traps produced only 30 pounds of lobsters. (In the 1880s, the Ocean House paid only two to three cents each for lobsters, and, at the turn of the century, Reverend Roland Sawyer recalled that lobsters were so plentiful they could be caught in the eelgrass in the river by hooking on them from a dory with a long, hooked pole or by hand while walking in shallow water.) Jenness had been suspended by Fish and Game Director Ralph Carpenter following Jenness' confiscation of short lobsters from a Rye fisherman. Meanwhile, two fishermen who had been charged with taking shorts had been given back their licenses by Carpenter. Members of the Legal Lobster Association included Ashton Norton, Chester Gauron, Harold Mace, Irving Jones, and James Rush.

A 1949 report gave the following statistics for Hampton River, which probably included the Seabrook side of the river as well as Hampton: 102 powerboats, 15 party boats making one or two scheduled trips a day with an average capacity of at least 30, 12 sailboats, and 196 smaller craft, half of which are equipped with outboard motors. Sixteen lobstermen used the river, with a gross income of about $100,000.

The controversy regarding short lobsters still continues with occasional arrests, but more rigid enforcement has made the issue a minor one. Of more concern to the fishermen is the problem of a shortage of lobsters, perhaps a result of overfishing, which pits commercial fishermen against "amateurs" who have a handful of traps for personal consumption. State laws passed in 1984 and 1989 increased the legal length of lobsters that could be taken, an effort to change the 20-year decline in lobster catches. Since 93 percent of lobsters taken are in their first year of entering the fishery, before they can mature and reproduce, it is hoped that the longer and older lobsters would have more of an opportunity to mature and sexually reproduce, resulting in increased lobster populations. In 1989 Hampton had about 40 full- and part-time lobster fishermen.

The expense of lobstering, the risk of losing everything in one storm, the long hours, and difficult working conditions have resulted in most fishermen being a rugged and independent breed who earn every penny they bring home and who have little sympathy for those weekend boaters who do not learn the ways of the sea. Fishermen know the dangers of going offshore in small boats and, while few Hampton men have been lost in this difficult occupation, the risks are always present, as local people learned one March day in 1976 when North Hampton lobsterman Irving "Nicky" Jones, a Hampton native, disappeared while lobstering. His boat was found circling slowly off Great Boar's Head, but Jones was not aboard. His father, Irving, Sr., and fellow fisherman Arthur Doggett pulled the young Jones's traps, thinking he might have gotten tangled in a line and had been pulled overboard, but the two men found nothing. Finally in June, a memorial service was held. Irving, Sr., whose wife June usually helped him haul the traps, was grief-stricken over the loss of his son and he died in 1977 at age 67. In 1978, the Jones family was recognized for its contributions to the fishing industry when Governor Meldrim Thomson dedicated a plaque in their name at the harbor.

Other long-time Hampton lobstermen in this century include brothers Edmund and Armand Gauron, Charles Moody, and Harold Felch. Armand, age 84 in 1983, began fishing at age 13 with traps, which he pulled by hand. He was harbormaster for 20 years and also operated one of the harbor's early party boats. Moody, who was harbormaster in the 1950s, was in his boat lobstering off Boar's Head one day, and, as James Tucker explained in a 1955 column, "There, in the ocean solitude he must have loved, he became ill -- seriously ill. Undaunted, and in spite of his seventy-eight years, Charlie Moody literally fought his way home," where he died. In 1970, when Felch was 80 and completing 69 years as a lobsterman, he still pulled 50 traps a day, helped no doubt by the pacemaker installed two years earlier. He was also a call member of the Hampton Fire Department. Interviewed by the Union in 1971 when he finally retired from fishing, Felch, who was busy building traps for other fishermen, echoed the refrain that he shared with every fisherman of the past and present, "I sure miss the sea."

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