By Marc Falco
I had planned to write this story about my experience with recreational lobstering, where you learn the somewhat complicated regulations, obtain and rig the necessary gear, then get a permit which allows you to run up to ten lobster pots, or traps. You load the pots in the boat, add bait, drop them over the side over likely-looking bottom structure then return to check them every other day or so. It was very rewarding being on Buzzards Bay, pulling pots and finding “bugs” (lobsters) inside.
Lobstering became so much fun as the anticipation mounted with each pot getting a few feet closer to the surface with every pull on the line, I wondered, “why didn’t I do this 40 years ago?” It’s hard work, but good work, which makes one appreciate all that commercial lobstermen endure year-round to put fine cuisine on our tables. Like most any fishing, it’s cheaper to buy lobsters in the store, but then you miss out on all the fun.
This summer when I took the plunge, I was trying to keep my investment to a minimum and had bought ten used traps that needed some work – more work than I thought – so off to Ketcham Traps in New Bedford I went. After buying parts, fixing and rigging the pots, and figuring the many hours and days I spent working on them, I should’ve bought new ones.
This is where the original story idea takes a turn as I discovered what a treasure of a crown jewel Ketcham Traps is. There isn’t another business like it from here to Downeast Maine. The company’s owner and founder, Bob Ketcham of Dartmouth, was one of the first to begin making wire lobster traps, which revolutionized lobstering, eventually making obsolete the traditional wooden traps.
A commercial lobsterman on Cuttyhunk Island and fishing traditional wooden pots, Bob started the business of building his wire traps in 1975. “I started building my own gear with the vinyl coated wire – it weighed less than half of wooden traps and wasn’t susceptible to wood-boring worms and other parasites,” Bob said. “The traps were fishing well so I took a gamble and bought a booth for $500 at a commercial fishermen’s expo in Boston. People liked my stuff and I got a bunch of orders. I came home and put a ‘for sale’ sign on the boat. Besides, I had done offshore lobstering where you’re at sea for days at a time – and I liked the idea of sleeping in my own bed every night.”
After building traps at his home for a few years, he moved the enterprise to New Bedford in 1980, where he rented the second floor of an old mill between Clark and Penniman Streets. Two years later, he bought the building, then in 1998 he bought the old Carter St. School from the city, which agreed to discontinue the street between the two buildings, which is where traps now are stacked and stored prior to delivery. Later, Bob also bought another building adjacent to the property to add to the large, fenced-in compound.
“Being in New Bedford has worked well for us – it’s an excellent coastal location with good lobstering and we were able to adapt the business to the existing structures,” he said.
The company, which began with a fisherman’s innovative idea, now ships merchandise internationally and employs about 25 hard-working people. One of them is Myron Horzesky who also has worked as a commercial lobsterman. He says the location of the business always has been a tough neighborhood and admits to having been somewhat of a troubled youth himself who grew up near the trap company and was ‘class clown’ at the Carter St. School.
“When I was 13, Bob put up a basketball hoop for the neighborhood kids and I used to play. The next year, when I was 14, I was working for him after school and I’ve been working for him in one capacity or another ever since.”
While we were talking in one section of the Ketcham Trap office, which once was a classroom in the Carter St. School, Myron said that when he was a kid at the school, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut and they told him that if he didn’t shut it, he was never going to leave.
“They were right,” he said. “It was more than 30 years ago and I’m still here.”
Myron worked his way up from a tough neighborhood kid building traps after school to chief operations officer, or manager. Ketcham Traps subscribes to the hiring theory of “you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”
“Bob got something good going,” he said. “We offer quality high-paying jobs and they put out quality work.”
In the beginning as lobstermen discovered the benefits of the wire pots, some companies were bringing them in from overseas and they were a lot cheaper than Ketcham traps, Bob explained.
“But they didn’t last,” he said. “They were made of cheap wire dipped in plastic and only lasted a couple of years.”
Bob said that he uses hot-dipped marine-grade galvanized wire which is coated with vinyl and an adhesive is used to bond the vinyl to the wire, and the adhesive prevents salt water from seeping in through the cut ends of the wire and turning the trap into rust.
“A trap has to be well-built of top-quality components if you want it to last,” he said. “It’s sitting in salt water all day for months at a time.”
Wooden traps had an average life of three years and lobstermen using them usually had to have a crew on shore repairing and nailing traps, compared to Ketcham’s wire traps, which are virtually maintenance free and can last 10 years.
Wire traps are built upon the same basic design and use the same components as the wooden trap, which was invented in the early 1800s. A standard trap has two main compartments – the kitchen and parlor. The lobster is attracted to the bait that’s hung inside the kitchen area of the trap and it crawls in through one of two round entrances, or “doors”. Once inside it grabs some of the bait and being difficult to get back up through the entrance, the lobster follows the path of least resistance and travels up a funnel shaped net, called the “head”, then falls down into the “parlor” where larger lobsters become trapped.
The parlor is equipped with an escape vent allowing smaller undersize lobsters to exit the trap. The vent also doubles as an escape hatch and its fasteners are designed to rust away in time, exposing a larger open area in the side of the trap allowing bigger lobsters to escape in the event the trap is lost. This prevents the trap from “ghost fishing” and trapping lobsters without ever being recovered. The top of the trap has a hinged door, usually secured with bungee cords, allowing the lobsterman to open the trap, reach in and remove the lobsters. A line is tied to the trap’s “bridle” and a buoy, painted with the lobsterman’s identifying colors, is tied on the end and floats on the surface, marking the location of the trap.
Wire traps can be made in different colors including green, black, yellow, blue and red and combinations of those colors.
“Every lobsterman has his own buoy colors and some guys also like their own trap colors so they can identify their gear,” says Myron. “Like anything else, 99 percent of the lobstermen are good, honest, hard-working people but you’re going to get a bad apple or two and if the gear is stolen, it can be identified just by the color scheme. Some guys also think certain colors fish better than others, even though lobsters feed mostly after dark when they come out from under rocks and rely mostly on their antennae rather than sight. Lobstermen spend a lot of time thinking about what a lobster is thinking about.”
While lobsters now are considered a delicacy, they were once a “trash fish” and Bob said they were so plentiful in the 1600s that the Pilgrims used to go out at low tide and pull them out from under rocks with a hook. According to historic accounts of Colonial days compiled by The University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, the lobster was a pauper’s food and largely detested party due to its bug-like appearance, resembling a scorpion. Serving them to prisoners on a regular basis was considered cruel and unusual punishment. Lobster shells about a house also was a sign of poverty, according to historic accounts.
By the mid-1800s, canning became popular, allowing fresh lobster meat to be preserved and shipped across the country. In addition, the railroad brought visitors from landlocked states to New England, who had never heard of lobster but fell in love at first bite. Thus the stage was set and lobstering slowly underwent many changes, becoming a thriving fishery with the largest total U.S. catch occurring in 2010 which was valued at nearly $400 million.
“Like any fishery, the peaks are great but you also have to ride out the valleys, weather some storms and endure many changes,” said Bob. “When I started building wire traps, guys in the wooden pot business laughed at my work – but they went out. They didn’t change with the times. We changed and we’ve continued to evolve in an ever-changing market.”
At Ketcham Traps, they also make several variations of the wire trap, each designed specifically for catching such species as conch (whelk), green crabs, blue crabs, eels and sea bass. They also make squirrel-proof bird feeders and suet feeders. “Before they (suet feeders) started coming in from overseas, we made hundreds of thousands of them,” said Bob. “They’re starting to pick up again too, especially with the mom and pop stores that want the “Made in USA” label on their merchandise. We’re Americans working for Americans.”
Bob also builds the “yot pot” which is a scaled-down version of the commercial lobster pot, designed for recreational lobstering. It’s built just as sturdy but it’s smaller and lighter with less ballast weight, allowing a person to lean over the side and pull it into the boat by hand, rather than having to use a motorized pot puller necessary to haul heavy commercial pots from the ocean floor.
That ever-changing market now includes the growing aquaculture industry, Bob said. “We started with lobster traps, which is still our mainstay, but it’s evolved into so much more,” he continued. “Today, a lot of our business is oyster and clam cages. People asked me, ‘can you build oyster gear?’ I said, ‘why not?’ It’s a growth industry, the business continues to evolve and we’re always improving on our oyster cage designs. Oyster farms are big now and a lot of today’s seafood comes from producing instead of wild-harvesting. Aquaculture is the way of the future where everything is going ‘green’.”
Bob explained that oyster farming used to be a long-term investment because it took three years for an oyster to grow to market size and be saleable. Now with improved science and selective breeding it only takes only 18 months for an oyster to grow from a seed the size of a grain of said to market size of three inches. Cultured oysters are also uniform in shape and size, compared to wild oysters. They’re both grown in the ocean, except one grew up in a cage. In addition, each oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day, so not only are aquacultures producing product instead of wild harvesting it, they’re contributing to cleaner water in the bays they’re in.
“These oyster farms have millions of oysters,” Bob added. “And most of the farms are family businesses. A lot of commercial fishermen wanted their kids to go to college and they did, but some still don’t want to be stuck in a cubicle for the rest of their lives so they’re growing seafood. It’s not your typical 9 – 5 job.”
Some coastal towns also benefit from their own oyster-rearing projects for recreational shellfishermen. Myron explains, “the towns invest in cages to raise their own oysters, which clean up the water, then they release them and open the area to recreational shellfishing. The added attraction of harvestable oysters then increases shellfish license sales. It goes full circle. With everything going green, we (Ketcham Traps) are cleaning the environment and putting people to work.”
Bob noted that working with fishermen is like working with farmers. “This is a handshake business,” he said. “Fishermen don’t have time for lots of paperwork. They call us and say we need 250 traps – we make ‘em.”
At Ketcham Traps, you won’t find Bob behind a desk. He’s usually at his workbench fixing things and maintaining the machinery. His wife, Mona, and his daughter, Heather, also work with him. Myron’s wife, Michelle, works in the office, “and she’s wonderful with customers,” Bob says. “Also, being a family business like ours allows us to react quickly in the market. We make our own decisions – not like big corporations which take forever.”
In addition to hard work, determination, adaptability and the support of family and a dedicated staff, the name Ketcham and a trap business were destined to be a success. How could they go wrong?