Lobstering: A tough business booms
Little Cranberry Island is only a mile and a half long and has a year-round population of 65. It has one store, which all but shuts down in winter; residents go "off island" to buy groceries, usually on the mail boat that makes several runs daily.
It has a two-room schoolhouse for kindergarten through eighth grade; high schoolers trek to the mainland. There are no cops, only a constable who doesn't have the power to arrest anyone.
There is a fire truck but no paid firemen. The place can feel overrun in the summer, when the population swells to 400, and desolate in the winter, when the only restaurant is shuttered. There are no beauty salons, banks, movie theaters or fast-food joints - much less a Starbucks.
Surviving on the island requires inhabitants to be hardy, independent and self-sufficient, adjectives that describe the Alleys well.
A love of nature helps too. That's what drew Stefanie here on a student conservation program in 1975 after she graduated from college in Colorado. The beauty and simplicity of life on Islesford, as the locals call the island, was so alluring that she returned the following year and found a job weighing lobsters on the dock.
That's where she met Rick. His father and both of his grandfathers were lobstermen, so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that he would be a lobsterman too. There are hardly any other jobs on the island, but Rick says, "I wouldn't have wanted to do anything else even if I did have a choice."
Stefanie was immediately attracted to Rick's artistic side. He went to college at the Portland School of Art and was a skilled painter of birds and landscapes. They married in 1977 and bought their small one-story house for $17,000 from Rick's grandfather.
Stefanie was Rick's sternman but took a leave from lobstering when the children were born (Jeremy in 1979 and Ashley five years later).
The Alleys remember many lean years as they struggled to support their young family. Rick brought in extra cash during the off-season by fishing for shrimp and scallops. Stefanie helped out by taking part-time jobs in construction, installing floors and hanging Sheetrock. She gave up luxuries like visits to her family's lakeside cabin in Minnesota, even when the isolation of the island became oppressive.
By the mid-1990s, however, around the time of Rick's bicycle accident, something strange was happening in the lobster kingdom: The catch was skyrocketing. The 39 million pounds of lobster trapped by Maine fishermen in 1994 was nearly twice the historical average. By the end of the decade, the bounty had fully tripled.
Nobody knows for sure why this happened (Rick suspects commercial overfishing of cod, a notorious lobster predator). But the result was that Stefanie's entry into full-time lobstering was auspiciously timed.
Stefanie was so well respected among lobstermen that nobody made a fuss about a woman joining their ranks - including Stefanie, who refers to herself as a lobsterman.
Her first boat was a starter kit, a used 21-footer she bought for $7,500. By 2000 business was good enough for Stefanie to buy a new 28-footer, which she christened the Ashley 'N Lucy after her daughter and mother. With a price tag of $60,000, the boat was a big gamble; she had to tap into Rick's lobstering profits and borrow $20,000 from her father.
Today it all seems worth it, especially on the foggy mornings she loves the best, with only her radar and compass to guide her toward the traps she's dropped in curving lines along the shore.
After a while, the radio crackles with the voices of other lobstermen grumbling that they've had enough. "It's a real strain on your eyes," she says, and worries that she should head home too. "But then the fog starts burning off, and you can see Baker's Island or just the tops of the trees."
That's when she knows she's won - against the elements and her own nagging doubts. With a burst of energy, she starts hauling traps, wondering how many lobsters she's caught today.
Despite the record harvests along the Maine coast over the past decade, lobstering remains a fickle business. Weather, mechanical problems, lobster prices, fuel and bait costs and the mystery of which traps the elusive lobster will deign to enter conspire to make it a highly risky endeavor even in boom times.
The fluctuation in the Alleys'recent income reflects this well: Their combined income rose from about $70,000 in 2001 to $80,000 in 2003, then dropped to $61,000 last year.
Similarly, the cash reserves of their company, Stefanie Inc., fell from $115,000 in 2005 to $71,000 last year. (Stefanie and Rick own about half of the assets; Jeremy owns the rest.)
Part of the discrepancy can be attributed to lobster prices and the size of a season's catch. Last year the harvest was up, but prices dropped due to oversupply.
Then too, Rick had to fork over $60,000 in 2005 on a major renovation of the 27-year-old Stefanie - a lot of money, sure, but far cheaper than buying a comparable lobster boat new, which could run $200,000.
To make sure they have enough cash to pay their bills during the off-season, Rick and Stefanie pay themselves a salary of only about $1,000 each month. They supplement that base income by giving themselves periodic dividends based on the company's performance.
This strategy has enabled them to build a good cushion: They have about $35,500 in cash reserves for the business and $43,000 in CDs and bank accounts for their personal use.
They do have to manage about $10,000 in debt, including a home-equity loan that helped pay for the boat renovation and a loan for their 2003 Saturn. But their assets far outweigh these liabilities - property worth about $300,000 (their house, plus a woodlot they bought as an investment several years ago) and their share of the lobstering business ($180,000).
What really concerns Stefanie, though, is the future. "I would like to feel more comfortable about retirement," she says, worrying that their $126,000 IRAs won't be nearly enough.
Rick, who expects to keep fishing until a ripe old age, is more concerned about their lack of disability insurance: "What will happen if we get injured or something? What will we do?"