Lobster Buoys Mark the Spot

Maine has over 5,900 licensed  lobstermen to cater to the ever growing market for fresh live lobsters in the USA and beyond. In 2012 alone, Maine fishermen trapped and caught more than 126 million pounds of the iconic seafood and the number has been increasing every year. There are about  3 million lobster traps in Maine’s waters; and more than 30,000 are lost every year (Maine Department of Marine Resources). Lobster buoys help lobstermen locate their traps to haul in the crustaceans across the Maine coast. Buoys float on the water surface and are attached with a rope running all the way from the trap.

Lobster Buoy Spindle Patent
Lobster Buoy spindle patent issued Feb. 10, 1981 by the United States Patent and Trademark Office


Lobster Buoys Mark the Spot 2

The early Puritans who settled around Maine first learnt of lobster from the Native Americans. Soon after, it became a prized food commodity across New England States. They are said to have been so plentiful before the arrival of the settlers that Native Americans had multiple functions for them from using lobsters as fishing baits and fertilizing their fields. In 1605, one of the crew members under Captain George Weymouth reported that they trapped about 30 great lobsters at night. Massachusetts town records still maintain a lot of references to lobsters and from the beginning conservation was always an issue (GMA).

By 1830, Connecticut and Boston smacks were visiting Harpswell to collect fresh lobsters and many other areas. The conventional fishery started with hoop-net pots crudely constructed but they were not efficient, leading to the introduction of lath pots. The construction of the lath pots hasn’t changed much from the shape of those still used in Maine’s coast today, where two fishermen back in the day could handle 25-50 lath pots. The lath has a length of four feet, 2-foot in width, 18 inches in height and semi-cylindrical in Maine (Cobb, 2006).

Fishing Buoy
Weathered fishing buoy on the docks of Rockport, Massachusetts.

As early as 1850, buoy lines or warps that lowered and hauled traps were in use, which at the time were 12 fathoms in length. Presently, most of the fishermen haul their lobster buoys and traps between July and August to ensure they are in the best shape possible before lobster fishing in fall. When winter is excessively cold, the pots are usually removed even as some fishing takes places each month across the year (Cobb, 2006).

The use of the lobster buoy is important in lobster fishing. It marks the place a fisherman has set a trap and comes attached by a line or rope to a triple, pair or single group of lobster traps on the ocean’s bottom.  Having patterns and colors unique to a person on the buoys is important, which is the signal appearing on a boat that allows a patrol marine officer or crew and anyone else to identify the owner of the buoys. This lowers chances of theft.

How Buoys Work

While the fog in waters around Maine comes and goes equally fast, the lobster buoys are always brightly painted and clearly identifiable. The lobster buoys sometimes are a safety and navigational threat or some minor inconvenience to cruising sailors. Millions of lobster traps can be seen in Maine waters and whether in groups or together, they are well marked by the huge numbers of lobster buoys. Trap limits have been put in the recent past but the buoys have continued to go up as lots of lobstermen utilize the maximum trap numbers allowed to them (Maine Government).

Lobster Buoys in Maine

Every buoy in the waters is always attached to a line, a long one, which is known as the potwarp to either a group of traps or just a single trap weighted on the ocean’s bottom. The modern lobsters are Styrofoam or plastic made and painted, sometimes manifesting a plastic or wooden handle around the middle.

It’s important to note it’s illegal in Maine to take or fish for lobsters using any other technique except the normal lobster traps allowed, or fishing from any other platform except a vessel; vessels in this case do not include docks (Maine Government).

While choosing the color of the buoy you must ensure the color or color patterns are unique to you and no other lobsterman is using them.  The lobsterman has to be permanently and clearly discernible with the licensed number of the lobsterman. The color design of the buoy has to be clearly displayed on the boat through two unique ways. Firstly, the color design can be displayed on the hull’s two sides or basically painted on any of the panels on either side. It should then be attached to the forward topside of the boat in a way that it can be seen without a problem on either side. The color also has to be a solid 4-inch color strip in height with a length of 18 inches abutting another hue on the longer side to create a rectangle, including a black border of one inch on every side (Maine Government).

Painted Lobster Bouys

The method of displaying the lobster buoys color design includes ensuring the buoy is about 12 inches in length and mounted in a way that the design of the color is perfectly clear on all the boat’s sides (Maine Government).

It’s also illegal in Main to transfer, raise, set or lift a lobster buoy unless it has been well marked with the license number given allowing a lobsterman to fish (Maine Government).

Above all, it’s unlawful for a licensed owner or anyone, including the Marine Patrol Office not only to possess, transfer, lift, raise or in any way molest a lobster buoy, lobster car, lobster warp or trap. Such adjudication attracts three years mandatory license loss.  It’s worth noting that a lobster buoy, warp, car or trap can be removed or moved from the shores or waters of the State of Maine to return the lobster gear to the real or licensed owner, including disposing lobster gear properly by any individual with written permission of a Patrol Marine Officer (Maine Government).

Anyone considering fishing lobster in coastal waters of Main from the Exemption Line to the head of tide, need to meet certain options of Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP).  This includes ensuring the lobster buoy is fixed to a buoy line using a weak link with a breaking strength that does not exceed 600 pounds. Also, every buoy line has to be created completely with a sinking line.

How Buoys are Made

Originally, the initial lobster buoys were created out of wood, mostly black cedar before they were painted using a number of colors. Lots of lobsterman derived a lot of pleasure from creating perfectly shaped, painted and whimsical lobster buoys which made them pieces of unique art. This was before glass bottles with stoppers made of rubber entered the scene (Hussey).

Currently, most lobster buoys are Styrofoam made, each of them carrying the initials of the lobsterman as well as the lobster number. The buoys are still color painted in hues unique to a particular lobsterman. In fact, the color patterns are so unique that lobstermen have maintained the patterns for decades of fishing for the crustacean across Maine’s waters (Hussey).

Lobster buoys made of wood are rarely used across the Maine waters since they cause damage to boat props. Lobster buoys made of plastic are readily available with majority of buoys today made of the popular material (Brophy 2011).

Apart from the patterns and materials, lobster buoys are of diverse patterns. The use of plastic or Styrofoam buoys replaced the use of wooden ones due to their inexpensive nature. However, Styrofoam lobster buoys require lots of repainting although they can last for years.  Buoys made of plastic on the other hand are also good but sometimes are run over and get crunched and lose their shape (Brophy 2011).

Whether plastic, Styrofoam or wooden, buoys are a beautiful sight but very critical in lobster fishing.

Works Cited

  • Cobb J.N., (2006). The Lobster Fishery of Maine.
  • http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17475/17475-h/17475-h.htm
  • GMA, Lobster History, http://www.gma.org/lobsters/allaboutlobsters/lobsterhistory.html
  • Hussey T., Beal tells of Forty Years of Lobster Fishing.
  • http://milbridgehistoricalsociety.org/previous/lobstering.html
  • http://www.nero.noaa.gov/whaletrp/index.html
  • http://www.nero.noaa.gov/whaletrp/plan/outreachsup.html
  • Brophy J., (2011). Beyond art: lobster buoys in fishing.
  • http://islandadvantages.com/news/2011/jul/28/beyond-art-lobster-buoys-in-fishing/#.VblUG7Uy5J2
  • Maine Government, (2009). A Guide to Lobstering in Maine.
  • https://www.maine.gov/dmr/science-research/species/lobster/
  • JOHNSON, HAROLD. “Maine Voices: A Million Lost Lobster Traps Wash Debris Ashore.” Portland Press Herald 2 Dec. 2012: n. pag. Print.


    1. Styrofoam buoys may be inexpensive, but they do a lot of harm in the ocean. My husband and I have seen thousands of styrofoam pieces from these painted styrofoam buoys washed up on Plum Island beach. Sea storms break loose these buoys as well as the lobster traps. We have seen about 50 lobster traps washed up on this beach also. The styrofoam pieces are ingested by marine wildlife as they think that they are fish eggs. Even plastic buoys are contributing to plastic trash when they break up from a storm’s rough waves furthering killing marine wildlife. There should be a law requiring all lobster and crab buoys be made of wood. It is a horrible and terrible thing that lobster buoys are made of styrofoam and plastic, killing marine wildlife constantly as they for sure will break up into pieces.

      1. I so share your thoughts and concerns!

        Ban them…

        Climate change concerns are real but will take us years to address…banning plastics and styrofoam can happen now.

  1. My family fished out of Kittery Point, Maine. Their buoys were a work of art. My dad bought logs with the bark on them an cut them into smaller pieces maybe 1-11/2 ft pieces. Put them in his lathe an used his chisel as the wood spinner around to turn it into a nice rounded shape that was about 4 inches an gradually the shaped evolved making it into a full sized bouy. He then burned two lines an inside he burnt his nam Carlson on that yellow strip an the Brest was red. The handle was yellow with a red tip. Wish I could find one, his dads were all yellow but the same shape next my brother used my granddads yellow. My cousins son was the lady in our family dying at sea, Chris Tobey.

  2. During our first trip out to Monhegan that the traps had 2 buoys. One with a plain dowel, it the other seemed to have a ball at the end of the dowel. Why the difference?

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