What’s a Lobster Buoy?

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Lobster buoys are attached to traps to help lobstermen locate and identify them. They are usually brightly colored and made of wood or plastic. Laws regulate their use and hunters must register their buoy colors and patterns. Buoys have become a symbol of the New England coast and are sometimes sold as vintage decorations.

A lobster buoy is a type of float that attaches to lobster traps so lobstermen can quickly locate and identify the traps, which are set on the ocean floor. While some recreational lobster hunters may set just one trap, which can be easily monitored, most members of the lobster harvesting industry set hundreds of traps at once. Buoys attached to these traps float on the ocean’s surface, making it easy to locate and recapture.

Even if a lobsterman would pay close attention to where he dropped a lobster trap into the sea, ocean currents and the movements of trapped lobsters have a tendency to displace the traps slightly. A lobster buoy allows lobsters to not only retrieve their traps by pulling up the attached rope, but also to identify errant traps as their own. Lobster-rich waters tend to be coveted by many different lobster hunters at once. The different markings and colors of a lobster buoy can help lobsters distinguish the traps they have set from those owned by other hunters.

The first lobster buoys were made of wood. Most were in the shape of spheres or rounded oblongs, often with poles or striped poles attached. Buoys are usually painted in bright colors to be easily identified from a distance. Wood is still sometimes used for making lobster buoys, but most modern buoys are made of durable plastic.

Jurisdictions where lobster hunting is a major industry often establish and enforce lobster laws, including rules on the use of lobster buoys. The waters around Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean produce most of the world’s spiny lobster. Maine and the New England coast of the United States supply the majority of clawed lobsters.

Lobster buoy laws usually cover everything from logging traps to restrictions on paint colors. Buoy users must usually register the color and pattern of their buoys with a centralized lobster agency or office. No two lobster hunters are allowed to use the same model of lobster buoy. Hunters are also usually limited to a certain number of buoys that can be in the water at a time.

The laws also set out penalties for tampering with or stealing lobster buoys. Rival lobsters have been known to steal traps belonging to other hunters. In New England, stealing lobster buoys is also increasingly popular with tourists and recreational fishermen.
Lobster buoys have become something of a quintessential symbol of the New England coast, and as such are coveted by collectors and decorators alike. Old and seasoned lobster buoys, many of which are still in use by seasoned lobstermen, are especially at risk of vandalism. A number of boutiques, both in New England and online, have attempted to meet the demand for lobster buoys by selling buoys that have been retired or have been manufactured to look weathered and vintage.

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