Despite Challenges, Nantucket Native Jim Sjolund Takes Up Lobstering

Jason Graziadei •

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Jim Sjolund is well aware of the challenges facing lobstermen these days. Especially the obstacles for anyone trying to catch lobsters out of Nantucket.

But Sjolund, who was born and raised on the island, is undeterred. He recently bought a used 36-foot lobster boat in Maine, acquired the necessary permits to fish south of Nantucket, and last month set the first of his 300 traps. Sjolund’s move into the fishery immediately doubles Nantucket’s lobster fleet, bringing it to a grand total of two boats.

He joins Dan Pronk, Nantucket’s only other lobsterman, and someone who Sjolund has worked with in the past aboard Pronk’s boat, the Black Earl. But Pronk has been considering getting out of the lobster business for some time now.

While the challenges they face are steep – from increasing regulations to the lack of fishing infrastructure on Nantucket, and the large distance to the nearest area where lobsters can be harvested – they clearly aren’t too daunting for Sjolund. After all, he’s has been fishing out of Dutch Harbor in Alaska for the past decade from a 125-foot boat with a crew of 25, working 112 hours per week.

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“I thought it would be nice to have something if I don’t want to do that anymore, and be at home,” Sjolund said. “I’ve lobstered with Dan a little bit in the past. I thought this is kind of different, and you could make enough money to probably pay your bills. I thought if he’s not going to go, I’ll go.”

While he’s not giving up his gig in Alaska – in fact, he just took a captain’s job with Alaskan Leader Fisheries – Sjolund said the possibility of lobstering out of his hometown was something that had been on his mind. And when he had the opportunity to buy a former lobster boat in Spruce Head, Maine, Sjolund decided to go for it.

“I picked lobstering because I said ‘alright, even if Dan and I both had big days fishing in the summertime, they can sell every lobster on Nantucket that we could catch’,” Sjolund said. “There’s a big demand for it. And you don’t need a really big boat.”

Sjolund has already made the first initial trips to Area 2 - about 20 miles south of Nantucket - with the help of his friend Mike Thureson aboard his new lobster boat, and the first of their "Nantucket Shoals" lobsters can be found for sale at Sayle's Seafood.

When the lobster season reopens next May, Sjolund plans to continue selling his catch to island fish markets, as retailing lobsters directly off the boat to consumers is off the table - at least for now - given the permits necessary and the complexity of getting them directly to consumers in that manner.

Sjolund’s new vessel, which he renamed the Julie Alice after his mother and grandmother, has been a labor of love. After getting the boat vetted by the chief engineer he worked with in Alaska, he brought it down from Maine to Nantucket last summer. In the time since then, he’s taken the vessel apart inside his barn off Parker Lane, and added larger gas tanks in light of the longer voyages it will be making - about 20 miles or more south of Nantucket - and to save some money when he fuels up.

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Beyond the challenges of starting up a lobstering business on Nantucket, Sjolund acknowledged that he’s also entering the fishery at a time of significant uncertainty for the industry. The debate over how lobster fishing should be regulated to protect critically endangered right whales has only accelerated since Sjolund decided to buy his boat last year.

Lobster fishermen already operated under significant regulations on when, where, and how they can ply their trade. But since 2017, researchers have documented 34 right whales that have died in the waters off the U.S. and Canada due to entanglements and vessel strikes. Just last month, the right whale named “Snow Cone” was spotted severely entangled 15 miles south of Nantucket, and New England Aquarium officials believe the female whale will not survive.

The situation has prompted federal regulators to impose new restrictions on lobstermen, including closing certain areas to fishing, requiring that more traps be added to each line, and mandating new types of gear that have breakaway links should it become entangled with a whale.

And just last month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium added lobsters to its influential “red list” as a seafood that people should avoid buying due to the risks it believes lobster fishing poses to right whales.

“Eventually it gets to the point of ‘is it worthwhile?’ The whale stuff really started again last year, right after I bought the boat,” Sjolund said. “I said ‘I’m committed now, what do I do? Sell it?’ I don’t know.”

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Sjolund is skeptical of the possibility that a new technology that could eliminate entanglements from lobster fishing – ropeless gear – will reach the point that it is both proven to work and affordable, at least in the near future.

While the debate continues to unfold, Sjolund will be heading out from his mooring in Nantucket Harbor when the season opens next year, and bringing lobsters back to a fish market near you.

You can follow along with Sjolund and his lobstering trips aboard the F/V Julie Alice on his Instagram page @fv_juliealice

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