SEARSPORT — Perhaps the thing most often associated with Maine is the lobster — and there are many historical reasons for that. Commercial lobstering dates back to the 1820s, when Maine had just become a state, according to Penobscot Marine Museum Curator Cipperly Good.

A hoop net used for lobster fishing in the 1840s. Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

In earlier times, lobster was so plentiful and disregarded that it was served in the Maine State Prison regularly, and the crustaceans were used as bait or garden fertilizer. The museum’s archives show that in the 1820s, the lobster “smack,” a boat with a well to transport live lobsters, was developed. This allowed transportation from Maine to the large cities of Boston and New York, causing the market to grow. It is unclear exactly why lobster was becoming popular in cities, but it was in such high demand that the shellfish were overfished by the 1880s.

Concern about overfishing led to the implementation of sustainable fishing practices, Good said. The museum’s historical information reports that Maine “imposed strict regulations limiting the catching of female lobsters, shortening the fishing season, and limiting allowable size range.”

Similar regulations are still in place today. In addition, the modern lobster trap is built with an exit for small lobsters below the regulation size. This streamlines the fishing process by allowing illegal lobsters to escape, and further protects the younger animals. Female lobsters found bearing eggs must be notched in the tail — a painless procedure — to prevent other fishermen from catching a female that can produce offspring. The notch takes several years to fully disappear, which provides protection for female lobsters to produce thousands of eggs.

Lobster meat began to be more prized in the 1940s, when the struggles of the Great Depression and World War II contributed to the popularity of canned lobster. Because it was plentiful — and not rationed — it became much-appreciated by the American public, and moved to being considered a delicacy rather than an acquired taste.

Lobstermen fish from a dory; a small, shallow boat popular with fishermen in New England. Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

Maine’s commercial lobstering history has also had an undeniable impact on boat construction. “Here on the coast of Maine, we have developed specialized boats for lobstering,” Good said. Historic lobster boats like the Friendship Sloop, developed in Friendship, Maine, have influenced the construction of modern boats. The sloop was developed in the 1880s, but has greatly affected the look of the modern sailboat, with wide triangular sails. Early lobster boats influenced the boat designs of today, Good said, and created distinctive Maine boat types. The wet well of the lobster smack has given way to specialized coolers and buckets on today’s boats.

Lobster boats both ashore and in harbor, in Stonington, Deer Isle. The photo shows some of the evolution of boats, as the one in the front is likely from the 1910s or ’20s, and the others were built around 1940 with converted automobile engines. Courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum

Lobstering has also provided unique opportunities for women. “Women have always been involved, but now they’re captains,” said Good, who curated a 2019 display on the paintings of Belfast artist Susan Tobey White. The “Lobstering Women of Maine” exhibit showcased White’s portraits of female lobstermen from all over the coast and islands of Maine, showing that while commercial lobstering was originally a male-dominated career, women are thriving in this environment.

Every Friday this summer is Lobster Day at the museum, so kids can meet PMM’s person-sized lobster friend and explore with regular admission. The museum’s website also mentions lobster trivia events and offers temporary tattoos for younger lobster lovers.