Butter stained tables line the dock of Menemsha harbor where on summer evenings fresh lobsters are eaten off paper plates as the sun sets on another Vineyard day. Finger licking is required, bibs are optional. Lobsters are a celebration, says Larsen’s Fish Market owner Betsy Larsen.

“It’s fun to play with your food when you get right down into it, get into the different parts and get butter all over your chin,” she said. “I just love lobster.”

Larsen’s cooked 17,065 lobsters on a six burner stove last year. Open from May to October, the family-run fish market sold more cooked lobsters last year than the year-round population of the Island.

Menemsha is home base for Island lobsters. Most mornings about 10 lobstermen set out from the historic fishing village to fish Vineyard waters.

Wayne Iaocono has been a lobsterman for 45 years. On a recent morning he stepped into his orange waders, hooked the suspenders over his shoulders and pulled on his blue rubber boots. The smell of gasoline, saltwater and bait marinating in two large blue barrels filled the air as Mr. Iaocono guided Freedom, the name of his boat, out of Menemsha harbor.

Lobstering locations were once well-kept secrets, but these days “everybody knows each other's spots” because the electronics are so accurate, Mr. Iaocono said. He starts off in the spring around Noman’s Land and works his way toward Cox’s Ledge and other areas south of the Vineyard.

“In the fall I’m the farthest, about 25 fathoms, or 20 miles, off the coast,” he said.

Lobster pots stay out at sea between four days to a week. Skate is used for bait.

Out on the boat, Mr. Iaocono adjusted a dial on the control panel and hoisted up a lobster pot. The pulley creaked and soon lobster tails were flapping nervously. A few Jonah crabs came along for the ride.

Mr. Iaocono has a license for 550 pots, though some of them are stacked in his yard, he said. The number of lobsters per pot vary.

“One day last year I had 22 in a pot, a lot of them are short and not all keepers. I’ve had as many as seven or eight keepers . . . . That’s the kitchen and that’s the parlor,” he said opening up one of his traps. “The bait’s in here and that’s where they dine, and then they go and hang out in the parlor.”

Latches on the door are degradable so if a pot is lost, the latch will dissolve after about a month and the door will open.

Lobsters are measured from the carapace, just above the tale, to the eye socket and must measure 3 and 3/8 inches in order to keep them. Females have wider tales and a “fine feather like” appendage called swimmerets. The males have “very solid” swimmerets, Mr. Iaocono explained. Males also have smaller claws.

To band his lobsters Mr. Iaocono uses custom rubber bands sponsored by Vineyard Wild Caught. A special banding tool comes in handy.

“Sometimes at the end of the day when you’re tired they’ll throw you a right hook and nail you,” he said.

Mr. Iaocono sells his lobsters to Menemsha Fish Market. He saves the culls, or lobsters with one claw, and uses them for barter.

“I trade them for haircuts,” he said. “And my dentist gets some.”

Mr. Iaocono is out lobstering from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. three to four days a week in the summer and every day in the cooler months. Early in the season lobstermen work close to land in hard bottom areas, Mr. Iaocono said, before moving further offshore.

“We follow them out after they shed. This is the month they shed and things are really slow right now because of that. They’re just starting to come out with their new shells. They start to work off again into the deeper waters so we try to stay one step ahead of them.”

The shedding of shells, known as molting, happens annually.

“I think they taste good all the time,” Mr. Iaocono said. “People talk about the shedders as not being so good, but I think they’re just as good.”

The amount of lobsters fisherman can catch has been cut in recent years in an effort to revive the fishery. As a result Vineyard waters could be seeing a comeback, Mr. Iaocono said.

“We’re seeing a lot of young lobsters,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because the water is warmer, but there are lots of them. The draggers that are fluking now off of Gay Head, they’ve never seen so many. Hopefully that’s a sign for the future.”

Over at Menemsha Fish Market, owner Stanley Larsen held up a 14 pounder. It had arrived the day before from “down on the Cape,” he said.

“It tastes just as good as the small ones,” he said. “It’s like cooking a roast — if you overcook it, it’s tough and chewy and dried out. Cook it right and it’s really tasty. You get nice big hunks of meat out of it.”

The 14-pound lobster was the exception at the market. Most of the lobsters are from local lobstermen. A commercial fishermen, Mr. Larsen has little interest in lobstering himself.

“When I was a kid I used to go with my father at 1 o’clock in the morning and he would drag me out of bed if one of the crewmen didn’t show up. I’d be 14 or 15 years old, in the middle of the winter time, green, and I’d be sick the whole time . . . that cured me of ever wanting to go lobstering.”

In those days they would come back with “big bear pots” brimming with lobsters. “Now if you’re lucky you get one keeper in a pot.”

Sometimes young female lobsters, or breeders, are brought into the market. Mr. Larsen offers customers the opportunity to purchase these lobsters and release them back into the water. He will mark the lobster by cutting what is known as a v-notch into its tale.

“This way the female lobster has a chance to lay eggs one more time before it sheds and replaces that v-notch with a new shell,” he said.

Lobster is part of the Menemsha experience, Mr. Larsen said. “It’s a dying heritage that’s still going on here. You can walk around the whole harbor, stop in at Everett Poole’s chandlery, hit the markets, walk up and down the docks to look at the boats, little kids can catch crabs by the jetty. It’s one of the only places you can really feel safe.”

Farther down the dock at Larsen’s Fish Market, Stanley’s cousin Betsy was preparing for the evening rush at her store. On a quiet October day, Larsen’s will cook around five lobsters. Each day in August they boil up closer to 300 lobsters.

Last year’s final tally of 17,095 lobsters was higher than the year before and they’ll keep track again this year.

“It’s a fun little game we play,” she said.

Ms. Larsen said she buys from Menemsha fishermen as much as possible but sometimes has to import from New Bedford, Maine or Canada to meet the summer demand.

“In the spring, you know how it is here on the Vineyard, there are more lobster than there are people,” she said. “In summer, lobstering drops off and we get a lot of the smaller ones, but probably the two pounders are the most popular lobster we sell.”

Ms. Larsen likes to keep it simple when she eats lobster.

“Right of the shell and into my mouth,” she said. “I tell ya, I just love lobster. I’ve never had it any way I didn’t like.”

Several blue lobsters have come across Ms. Larsen’s dock. According to statistics compiled at the University of Maine, the odds of catching a blue lobster in North America are about one in two million.

“I gave one to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, brought it over in a little cooler,” she said. “If she was cooked she’d turn red, like all the other ones.”

Ms. Larsen remembered cooking one special lobster for a gentlemen who proposed to his girlfriend. “I cooked the lobster and he slid the engagement ring on one of the little legs. Lucky thing she looked down.”

Ms. Larsen offered advice to lobster newcomers. “Don’t be afraid to get dirty.”

At one of the benches behind Larsen’s, 13-year-old John Collins was sampling his first lobster. “It was really good,” he said. “I had some help cracking it.”

“We’re from Long Island and friends of ours told us about Menemsha,” his father, Anthony Collins, said. “It’s just a beautiful experience.”

A group of women from the Hudson Valley were enjoying their annual girls’ weekend on Menemsha Beach, each with a plateful of lobster. They came prepared with folding tables, chairs, bottles of wine and a box of cracking tools.

“We started talking about our lobster dinner before breakfast this morning,” Betty White said. “How big we’re going to get and where we’re going to get it from. Four of us got it from one place and two others from the other.”

“This is our getaway, our once a year getaway that we all feast on,” Linda White added. The friends have been coming to the Island together for 14 years.

“A giant food fest is what it is,” Ms. Federico added. “Our biggest problem is how many bottles of wine to bring to the beach.”

There’s just something about lobster, the group agreed.

“The messiness,” Ms. Federico said with a wide grin.

“The flavor, the smell, the saltiness,” Debbie Kudzia said.

“The idea of not giving two flying falafels what we look like,” Gail Buckle said.

“You have to eat lobster with the right friends,” Ms. White added. “Some people just eat the tail meat and they’re done. You have to eat it with people who want to pull it apart and suck out every little bit.”


Follow the journey from sea to the plate in our gallery, Lobster Time!