Baited (sic) Breath

A blog from Paul Anderson, Executive Director:

I was working on a project, and one of my co-workers told me she’d be here shortly. I replied that I was “waiting with baited breath.” I’ve always wondered where phrases like that come from. Is my breath really baited? I’ve been around bait enough to know that I don’t want my breath to be associated with it. It turns out that the colloquialism is actually “bated” breath and means to hold back or restrain. So, holding breath in anticipation of something is how this phrase gets used. That doesn’t diminish the importance of bait, though. No matter how bad my breath might sometimes be, bait is a serious matter in these parts.

The etymology (origin) of these kinds of phrases is interesting as they often demonstrate how heritage and folklore tell the stories of past, present, and future. “I don’t give a tinker’s dam what you think” is another interesting colloquialism. It’s charming and sounds historic, because I don’t think you’ll find a tinker in the yellow pages. Come to think of it; I’m not sure if we even have yellow pages anymore. These days we don’t’ repair metal pots, we throw them away, give them to our children for various sundry uses, or relegate them to the garden shed. But when there were tinkers who traveled about repairing cracked metal pots, he or she would repair the crack using solder kept in place by dams made of mud or clay. After the solder was hardened, the dam could be removed and discarded. Its value and use limited to the time spent making the repair. So, “I don’t give a tinker’s dam” is a disparaging comment about whether the issue at hand deserves any attention at all, something like, “I don’t give a rat’s ass” (we’ll leave that one for another day).

Back to bait. It’s a serious issue here where lobsters are king. As boats make their way around Maine’s working harbors, they are moving traps, lobsters, fuel, and bait. Lobsters don’t just wander into traps. They need to be attracted, coerced, or baited by herring, alewife, poggies, fish wracks, gurry, and the like. Bait comes from far and near, fresh or frozen, in boxes, bags, tubs, and flats. Sold by the ton, nearly half of the daily cost of a hard-working lobster boat is spent on bait. Ultimately, the various types of bait are returned to the ocean in small mesh bait bags or speared on the bait line and placed into the “kitchen” section of traps where lobsters will enter and dine. Availability and sources of bait vary through the season. The Gulf of Maine’s Atlantic herring fishery is an important source, but not always as reliable as needed. Other types of bait must arrive by truck, ship, or plane to be used as bait for lobster; the United States’ most valuable commercial fishery. What is a lobster’s dinner in a trap, in turn, becomes dinner for someone, somewhere else in the world. It’s fascinating to think that the lobster tail being consumed Christmas Eve in a home in Paris, France is probably composed of protein from pilchards harvested off of Peru or a fish head from a processing plant in some other part of the world.

Wouldn’t it be neat if the bait we used locally was derived locally, truly adding to the sustainability of fishing? At Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, through the coordinated efforts of communities, fishermen, and scientists, we continue to make progress restoring river-runs for fish like alewives. Perhaps, someday, more of the bait used in Maine’s lobster fishery will come from our own backyard through restored alewife runs and other local sources. What goes around comes around (and we’ll also leave that one for another day).

About the author, Paul Anderson:

Paul Anderson is the Executive Director of Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. Anderson has 30 years of experience working with Maine’s marine resources, primarily in public service roles, at the intersection of science, policy, and community. He possesses a strong ability to moderate, build, and manage highly effective teams and organizations. Anderson holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in Microbiology from the University of Maine.