A fence marks the perimeter of an old lobster pound in Bremen. The tidal impoundments, once an integral part of the lobster supply chain, have fallen out of favor and Community Shellfish now grows oysters in the pound. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Though many seaside restaurants and roadside seafood shacks bear the name, Maine’s traditional lobster pounds — the human-made tidal enclosures that have stored lobsters along the coast for more than 100 years — have largely gone dormant in the past decade.

For decades, the pounds made up a majority of all the lobster storage in the state and were a lynchpin in keeping a steady flow of live lobsters in the marketplace.

But now they are being relegated to living relics, a victim of climate change, emerging technology and harsh economics. It’s a chapter of Maine fishing history that seems to be coming to a quiet close, though some pioneers are looking to transform old pounds into new uses and diversify the state’s coastal economy.

Maine’s first lobster pound was built in 1875 on Vinalhaven. Having the ability to store lobster long term and keep them alive was crucial for the highly seasonal fishery. Without pounds or other methods to store them, there would be a glut of lobster in the summer and a scarcity come Christmas.

A picture of a Vinalhaven lobster pound from a 1899 bulletin of the United States Fish Commission. Credit: Courtesy of the United States Fish Commission

“Back then there was no other way to keep lobsters for very long,” said Nelson Heanssler, who runs pounds in Deer Isle with his nephew Thomas Haynes. “The only way that they could keep them very long was through lobster pounds.”

The simple setups usually entail a dam being placed at the mouth of a small cove, creating a low-maintenance corral for lobsters to be held for long-term storage. The walls are usually lower than the high water level, allowing for constant seawater circulation for the lobsters.

The pounds also served as a place to allow lobsters to harden their shells, making them worth more and easier to ship.

The idea took hold after 1895, when the lobster-canning industry went into decline and there was an increased need for facilities that could hold live lobsters.

From a single pound in 1875, the industry grew to 26 lobster pounds by 1903, boasting a combined capacity to store 1.5 million pounds of lobster. By 1959, the capacity had grown to 4.2 million pounds, and lobster pounds made up more than two-thirds of the state’s live-lobster storage facilities.

The pounds were “the best means to date for holding lobsters for several months without large mortalities,” according to a study published in Commercial Fisheries Review published in May 1959.

But the pound’s long reign as the premier way to store lobster began to peter out about 20 years ago.

In the early 2000s, pound owners began to see lobsters dying in large numbers in their pounds.

It was unusual for the industry. While keeping any animals alive in captivity is a gamble, pound owners previously rarely exceeded single-digit death rates. Then the number of lobsters dying before reaching market markedly increased. For Haynes, mortalities have now reached an alarming 28 percent.

The cause was rising water temperatures due to climate change.

“[A]s the Gulf of Maine warmed, oxygen saturation levels declined, so shallow uncirculated seawater in pounds became killing fields,” said Robert Steneck, a professor of oceanography, marine biology and marine policy at the University of Maine. “Pound owners suffered even greater ‘shrinkage’ so most pounds were abandoned.”

Gus Francis’ family has been pounding lobsters Down East for generations. He worked with biologists and researchers to find a solution at his Steuben pounds to stop the high die-off rate. But he came up empty — putting a nail in the pound’s coffin just as the fishery was hitting its economic peak.

“Nobody could come up with an answer,” Francis said. “If you can’t keep the product alive, it becomes obsolete to put in lobsters.”  

Meanwhile, distribution channels and land-based holding tanks also vastly improved, so there were other ways to store lobsters before getting them to market. Year-round fishing also became commonplace, and more lobsters are available for the holiday rush fresh out of the water.

Though some lobster pounds still do continue to run, many pounds are now vacant or only used for brief stints throughout the year.

“It’s an industry that’s past its day,” said Albert Carver, who ran a pound in Beals for years. “A lot of people have given up and just let them go away… At this point, it’s pretty much a done deal.”

The state has no official count of how many pounds are active in Maine now. Research done by Cassandra Leeman and others at the University of Maine put the count at 87, both active and inactive, with the largest portion located Down East.

Carver, Francis, Haynes and others all say the business is fading. Carver said that, even though their walls are still secured in the water, many owners have given it up or died themselves.

But Leeman’s research found that the warmer water temperatures could prove a great asset for aquaculture.

The colder ocean temperatures farther east result in much slower growing shellfish, setting farmers Down East potentially years behind their southern counterparts. But the water temperature is usually warmer in the pounds, speeding up the process.

Plants sprout from an old conveyor belt at a former lobster pound in Bremen. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

“These spaces have a really great opportunity to be repurposed,” Leeman said. “I think there is so much potential.”

Community Shellfish has been growing oysters in their two Bremen pounds for the past few years and having the shoreside infrastructure makes everything so much more convenient, said Robert Cuddy, a UMaine graduate student that works the pounds

Pounds are built along the shore, cutting out the need to boat out to a farm site. They also usually already have the infrastructure for processing equipment increasing efficiency.

“The huge draw to this is you can have all of your equipment right here,” said Cuddy. “It’s a huge time saver. If you can save time in all the little spots, it really just adds up.”

Haynes, the pound owner on Deer Isle, still holds lobsters in the summer but he’s considering growing oysters both inside and outside his pounds.

“It’s kind of a natural progression,” he said.

After sitting empty for seven years, Francis started growing oysters in his Steuben pounds and expects his first crop of bivalves to be ready this season. Others are looking at growing scallops in the former lobster pounds.

“We’re just trying to find some alternative use that we can do with our facilities,” he said. “My grandfather did lobsters, and my father did lobsters. We just couldn’t do it anymore.”

The pounds have also proved to be good for research environments. In the walled off enclosures, scientists can exercise more control over what happens and easily access the area almost any time.

Diane Cowan, the founder of the Lobster Conservancy, lives at an old pound on Friendship Long Island that was built in 1897 and operated for 100 years. She used the enclosure as a lobster nursery and for other controlled experiments. These days though, she has let it go as a natural wildlife habitat. She hopes to see how things change inside versus outside.

“It’s a perfect place to look at the signature of climate change on a specific location over time,” she said.