A lobster buoy is type of float that attaches to lobster traps in order for lobstermen to quickly locate and identify the traps, which are set on the floor of the ocean. While some recreational lobster catchers may set but a single 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 surface of the ocean, making spotting and recapturing easy.
Even if a lobsterman were to pay very close attention to the place where he dropped a lobster trap into the sea, ocean currents and trapped lobster movements have a tendency to move traps around a bit. A lobster buoy allows lobstermen to not only recover their traps by pulling up on the attached rope but also to identify errant traps as their own. Lobster-rich waters tend to be coveted by many different lobster catchers at once. The different markings and colorings of a lobster buoy can help lobstermen differentiate traps they have set from those owned by other hunters.
The earliest lobster buoys were made of wood. Most were shaped as either spheres or rounded oblongs, often with striped stakes or poles attached. Buoys are usually painted bright colors in order to be easily identified some distance away. Wood is still sometimes used for lobster buoy making, but most modern buoys are made of durable plastic.
Jurisdictions where lobster hunting is a major industry often set and enforce lobster laws, including rules about lobster buoy use. The waters around Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean produce most of the world’s spiny lobster. Maine and the U.S.’s New England Coast provide most clawed lobsters.
Lobster buoy laws usually pertain to everything from trap registration to restrictions on paint colors. Buoy users must usually register the color and pattern of their buoys with some centralized lobstering agency or office. No two lobster hunters are allowed to use the same lobster buoy pattern. Hunters are usually also restricted to a certain number of buoys that can be in the water at a time.
Laws also set punishments for tampering with or stealing lobster buoys. Rival lobstermen have been known to steal traps belonging to other hunters. In New England, lobster buoy theft is also increasingly popular among tourists and recreational fishers.
Lobster buoys have become something of a quintessential symbol of the New England coast, and as such are coveted by collectors and decorators alike. Antique and weathered lobster buoys, many of which are still in use by seasoned lobstermen, are particularly at risk of vandalism. A number of boutique shops, both in New England and online, have attempted to address the demand for lobster buoys by selling buoys that have either been retired or have been manufactured to look weathered and vintage.