ROCKPORT, Mass. (AP) - This is a story of a long-haul lobster - we’ll call him Larry - that entered Cape Ann lore on a summer day in 2017.
Rockport lobsterman Larry Stepenuck was hauling traps aboard his F/V Amie. The 46-year-old, Essex-built wooden boat was sitting in about four fathoms of water at the southeast tip of Straitsmouth Island, just off the coast of Rockport.
As one trap broke the surface and came to the rail, Stepenuck saw what appeared to be a larger-than-average male lobster nestled among a group of females.
“It was a big boy,” Stepenuck, 73, said. “He was 3-plus pounds.”
Larry the human eyeballed Larry the lobster. The veteran lobsterman thought it was close to the Massachusetts maximum carapace length of 5 inches for a keeper. He applied his carapace gauge, which indicated it was right on the bubble.
“It was borderline,” Stepenuck said. “I think it was just under 5 inches. I still decided to throw it over.”
But then his attention was drawn to a greenish plastic tag that encircled a knuckle on one of the lobster’s claws. It had some lettering and some numbers which led Stepenuck to believe the crustacean might have been tagged as part of a research project on lobster mobility and migration.
He gently maneuvered the tag around the knuckle and slipped it off before sending an undoubtedly relieved Larry back from whence he came.
Larry the human thought he was done with Larry the lobster.
But Larry the lobster was not necessarily done with Larry the human.
Stepenuck pocketed the tag. Later, when he reached his truck, he slipped it over the gear shift on the truck’s steering column and there it stayed, largely ignored despite Stepenuck’s intention to some day track down its history.
Fast forward to last week.
For whatever reason, Stepenuck brought the tag with him on Jan. 16 to Pratty’s bar on Parker Street. He handed it to a reporter from the Gloucester Daily Times with a simple instruction.
“See what you can find out about this,” he said.
The next day, Friday, the search began.
The lettering indicated the 2013 tag came from Maine, so the first step was to research active lobster tagging programs in Maine.
The most likely candidate appeared to be a cooperative project between the state’s Division of Marine Resources and the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association to chart lobster movement patterns among the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stock.
The reporter called and emailed Heidi Henninger, the science and program manager at the offshore lobstermen’s association, with the known details and pictures of the tag. Similar missives also went to Kathleen Reardon at Maine’s DMR.
Both immediately concluded the tag was not part of their project. They also agreed that the tag was an old trap tag and the lobster probably was tagged by a Maine lobsterman.
They said Maine lobstermen often tag released lobsters to see if they re-catch the same lobsters or out of simple curiosity about where returned lobsters might meander.
The reporter, on advice from Reardon and Henninger, visited a Facebook page for a public group called All Things Lobstering and posted pictures of the tag and details of Stepenuck’s landing of the big boy.
On Saturday morning, the reporter received a one-sentence email:
“The lobster your friend caught was our tag number,” it read. It was simply signed, “Will.” The email address was for a William Clayton.
The reporter responded, requesting more details.
“I am a sternman for my father-in-law,” Clayton wrote. “I’m guessing it was a male? Although it was a 2013 tag, it wasn’t tagged until 2015 or 2016 with old, unused trap tags. We fish a 100-acre private island off Midcoast Maine called Large Green Island (not Greens island) which is only fished by the 5 lobstermen that own portions of the island.”
Clayton, in a subsequent email Saturday evening, said his father-in-law is Arthur Rackliff, who goes by Bo Rackliff. Other local fishermen, he said, also refer to him as Bobo.
The scribe reported back to Stepenuck on Sunday. It wasn’t difficult. He was on the adjacent stool at the Parker Street Palace to have lunch and watch the AFC Championship game.
When he heard the name of the boat owner, Stepenuck’s eyes grew larger.
“I know this guy,” Stepenuck said of Rackliff, aka Bobo. “I’ve met him through my two friends, Elaine and Willie, that live on Little Green Island. All those Maine island folks know each other.”
The story swept around the bar.
Lobsterman Doc Herrick hauled out his smart phone and accessed an app that showed Larry the lobster traveled approximately 125 nautical miles south from where it was tagged and released by Clayton and Rackliff to where Stepenuck took temporary and humane possession.
“It’s pretty incredible to know a lobster traveled that far in a relatively short period of time in a complete opposite direction than what biologists say the biomass is moving,” Clayton wrote. “We have tagged others but none have been found that traveled that far.”
Henninger, when apprised of the tale, said Larry’s long-distance stamina was impressive, but not wholly rare.
“We have had quite a few tagged lobsters show up 100+ miles away,” she said via email. “Amazing how far they migrate over relatively short time spans.”
But how many are caught two times 125 miles apart - by lobstermen that may have actually met - and live to tell the tale?
That is the legend of Larry.
Both of them.
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