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Bringing diversity to Maine's nearly all-white lobster fleet

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Maine is one of the whitest states in the nation, and the fishermen in its famed lobster industry reflect that demographic reality. But this summer, a small group of Black men, some of them recent arrivals from Africa, are learning to lobster, as Fred Bever reports.

FRED BEVER, BYLINE: At 15, Cristiano Silva thought he might spend the summer working at a McDonald's near his home on the outskirts of Portland, Maine, and help with household expenses. Instead, he found himself on a lobster boat called the Sea Smoke out here among Casco Bay's rocky islands. Nose scrunched, he places a fist-sized mesh bag full of smelly herring inside a lobster trap.

CRISTIANO SILVA: I like it. I like it. The only thing I can't stand is the smell of the fish. That's literally it. I'm not going to lie. That's kind of kicking my butt right now. I just can't handle it.

BEVER: Cris was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and he was still a toddler when his mother emigrated here a decade ago. Now, he and several other Black teens are learning how to lobster in a new program called Float All Boats.

CRISTIANO: The only things that's a little tricky is getting what's called the buoy out of the water because sometimes - right? - it's weird angles and, like, you kind of miss it.

BEVER: Belching diesel fumes, the boat makes its way from buoy to buoy. Captain Jeff Holden, a volunteer with the program, teaches the use of an electric pulley that helps to bring the attached lobster traps up from the sea floor.

JEFF HOLDEN: You don't get your fingers caught between here and the hauler because it'll pull your hand right into the hauler. You can actually cut a finger off if you're not careful.

CRISTIANO: Oh, wow.

HOLDEN: OK, let her go.

BEVER: Holden is a longtime fisherman and lobster dealer who, with his son Luke and partner Ben Conniff, founded the Luke's Lobster company in 2009. Conniff says that Maine's seafood packing plants are some of the most diverse places in the state, with immigrant workers from Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa.

BEN CONNIFF: But when you think about that most prized job in the industry, getting to go out and catch and sell those lobsters yourself, you don't see any diversity. You see a sea of white.

BEVER: And the waiting list for a lobster license is years long, which is why Portland schoolteacher Halima Noor pushed Cris and other students to say yes when Luke's offered boat time, gear and expertise, the tools needed for a state apprenticeship program that allows teens to bypass that waiting list.

HALIMA NOOR: I had never heard of a lobster man that was a person of color.

BEVER: Noor, who was born in Somalia, says that the doors of opportunity don't always swing wide for young Black people in Maine, although she's not expecting the lobstering program to change the world.

NOOR: Not that I'm saying like, wow, we just ended racism right now, guys (laughter). But if they're just like, we got to do something that no other kid of color in Maine got to do, and this was great, and I'd be like, thank you. That's all I want for you to get.

BEVER: The oldest of the apprentice lobstermen, 17-year-old Joshua Lamour, is a promising football player who's excited about college recruiters who've been turning up lately. But he says that the lobstering experience is also opening new career horizons.

JOSHUA LAMOUR: And also just being alone out on the ocean sometimes, just doing your job and getting work done, you're really focused on nothing else. You can leave everything else behind. It's good. It's very therapeutic, I think.

BEVER: Lamour and Cris Silva both emphasize that a key attractant is getting paid for their share of the catch. Back at sea, though, Silva notes that the price lobstermen get for their catch can seesaw pretty wildly.

CRISTIANO: Now it's, like, five per pound. So it's, like, a little disappointing. So it really depends on how lucky you get. So the last time, I was pretty lucky. I got some good ones. I made some good money.

BEVER: And on this particular day, there is still some fishing luck in the offing.

CRISTIANO: It's so heavy. I caught so many lobsters.

LAMOUR: Oh, big catch here, baby.

HOLDEN: That's a big ol' male.

LAMOUR: This one - oh, I love this one.

BEVER: Cris and Josh say they will encourage siblings and schoolmates to join the program next summer. They plan to attend again, too. And they are even talking about getting a small boat and going into business together.

HOLDEN: Three to a trap.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Woo.

BEVER: For NPR News, I'm Fred Bever in Portland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.