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Lobster industry through the eyes of the players

''The Great Lobster War''
By Ron Formisano
University of Massachusetts Press, 150
pages, 18 black-and-white illustrations; paperback, $14.95
By William David Barry
©Copyright 1997 Guy Gannett Communications; first published July 27, 1997
Ron Formisano's new book, ''The Great Lobster War'' deserves to be the locally centered non-fiction hit of the summer.

With a pleasing economy of words, the history professor and Chebeague Island summer resident recounts the postwar struggle between lobstermen and wholesalers that culminated in federal court in the 1958 case ''U.S. v. Maine Lobstermen's Association and Leslie C. Dyer.'' Blending maritime, industrial, economic, social, labor and legal history, with flashes of colorful biography, the book proves enjoyable and accurate.

Starting with his own common-sense observations, extensive interviews and newspaper research, Formisano builds on a growing body of standard works. Some of this, including James Acheson's ''The Lobster Gangs of Maine'' (1988) and Kenneth R. Martin and Nathan Lipfert's ''Lobstering and the Maine Coast'' (1985), are obvious. Other sources, such as Judith S. Goldstein's ''Crossing Lines'' (1992), make sense in context.

The situation is simply stated:

''In the 1950s, Maine lobster fishermen attempted to organize an association that could bargain with wholesale fish dealers to set prices for live lobsters. This action broke with a generations-old tradition by which dealers, allegedly obeying only the impersonal laws of the market, quoted the daily price at boatside or wharfside to the lobstercatchers. During the summers of 1956 and 1957, as prices typically spiraled down during 'shedder' season, when new-shell lobsters are hungry and the catch is large but highly perishable, the fishermen launched two work stoppages or strikes ('tie-ups,' the fishermen called them).''

About 4,000 people, or roughly three quarters of the state's lobstermen, tied up in support of the lobstermen's association.

What Formisano sees as a ''turning point'' in the history of the fishery could be discussed as mere facts and figures. Instead, the reader is given entry into a world inhabited by the likes of Portland lobster dealer Jack Willard, Cliff Island fisherman Mike O'Reilly, visionary labor organizer and lobsterman Leslie Dyer of Vinalhaven and Rockland, and the occasional wild card like the sometime preacher, sometime catcher-of-lobsters, John T. Holman of Port Clyde. Such men - until recently it was largely a man's vocation - helped make up an extraordinary culture.

The image of the tough, individualistic lobsterman had endured for generations, and the author takes measure of the myth and reality. Indeed, while there is no denying that a man like hard-driving, cigar-chomping Lester Teel was a free spirit, he and his fellow lobstercatchers were tied to the mainland by a series of debts and obligations. Uncertain market prices made it anything but a reliable living.

There were also laws, state and federal, working to the advantage or disadvantage of the fishery. Many of the men involved had returned from the World War II with more savvy and a better understanding of the overall economic picture.

In the fall of 1954, a group of fishermen from Jonesport approached Rockland attorney A. Alan Grossman about organizing. Though not a native, Grossman was a community fixture known to be sympathetic to the lobstermen and their cause. In short order, the Maine Lobstermen's Association was established, with the thoughtful, popular Leslie Dyer elected president.

The tie-up of 1956 looked like an association victory, in that it kept the price per pound above a minimum. Soon after, a lawyer for one of the wholesalers went to the feds and charged the lobstermen's group with violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Curiously, most of the action shifted to Casco Bay, though lobstermen to the East continued to support the cause.

The heart of the book follows the trial of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, and it is told with skill and not a little humor. Testimony ranged from the laconic to the loquacious with fascinating lives and attitudes emerging in the process.

Presiding over it all, with decorum, good humor and sensitivity, was Judge Edward T. Gignoux. Both the defense and prosecution seem to have had nothing but praise for the judge. And, aside from the occasional outburst of frustration, civility prevailed.

The outcome of the trial proves surprising now, as it did then. Certainly, the penalties seem almost Solomonic. The lobstermen's association was not broken, but it was blunted. This was not what the wholesalers probably wanted - besides, they were soon to undergo an Anti-Trust trial of their own.

''The Great Lobster War'' is a complicated story, well told.

William David Barry, who lives in Portland, is a writer and historian.

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