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Sure, lobstering takes place elsewhere, but the fishery is at its richest and densest in Maine. And with record catches year after year for the past twenty years, the lobster's importance to Maine's economy and culture is growing. In 2011, Maine lobster landings topped 100 million pounds, valued at more than $300 million — that's nearly 90 percent of the lobster landings in the Northeast, where it is the most valuable fishery, and slightly less than half of all North American landings (Canadian lobster landings average between 110 and 120 million pounds). The total economic impact of the fishery — that includes boat builders, marine suppliers, fuel and bait dealers, and tourism — exceeds $500 million in Maine.
"In many ways, now is the best of times for lobstering," says Carl Wilson, the state of Maine's chief lobster biologist, who monitors lobster populations and provides guidance for managing the fishery. "It's never been so good, and there's never been so much money coming in. We have a good conservation ethic within the fishery, and we have all this science that says the lobster population appears to be in great shape. But it's also never been more precarious because the failure of other fisheries, whether due to mismanagement or environmental changes, has left us with just this one horse. Many of these coastal communities would be at extreme risk if lobstering were to hiccup."
Several theories have been advanced to explain why Maine lobster landings quadrupled over the past twenty years while other fisheries were collapsing. Indeed, some scientists believe the very decline of those fisheries may have benefited lobster by reducing predators like cod and haddock.
Climate change has been implicated as well. While warmer water temperatures are blamed for plummeting lobster populations in waters south of Cape Cod, the water has warmed just enough in the Gulf of Maine to actually benefit lobsters, Wilson says.
Maine's conservation efforts — the strictest of any lobster fishery — also may be playing a role in creating healthy lobster stocks. Key among these are size limits and V-notching. Lobstermen cannot keep lobsters whose carapace is less than 3 &fra14; inches long or more than 5 inches long, a practice that ensures each animal reaches an age where it is capable of at least one reproduction cycle and protects mature lobsters that have a greater capacity for breeding and reproduction. V-notching, meanwhile, is aimed at protecting the brood stock. Lobstermen notch a "V" into the tail fin of any egg-bearing lobster found in a trap and toss her back into the sea. That notch protects her as long as she has it, whether she is carrying eggs or not.
This animal-by-animal assessment by fishermen distinguishes lobstering from other fisheries, Wilson points out. "There's both a biological component and a social component in that the assumption is you're going to get something back from that action in the future," he says. "The lobster goes back into the ocean alive and it can be caught again. That's a unique luxury."
Other conservation measures include license limits (Maine issues 6,000 commercial lobstering licenses annually; about 4,500 harvesters are fishing full time), trap limits (800 traps per license holder), and traps with biodegradable panels that dissolve over time, allowing lobsters to escape from a derelict trap.
A lady lobster knows what she wants, and what she wants is the guy with a reputation for toughness and strength, the guy all the other lobsters in the neighborhood fear and respect. So she woos him. She leaves gifts — urchins, mussels, sea stars — at his front door. When she has his attention, she boldly moves in. And once they are better acquainted — a few days perhaps — she shimmies out of her tight suit of armor, exposing herself in all her soft, naked vulnerability. Summoning her strength (molting is an exhausting affair that leaves her limp as a strand of seaweed for nearly an hour), she raises her antennae to fondle her mate's rostrum, the hornlike projection between his eyes. He reciprocates, his own antennae roaming eagerly over her body. Using his legs, he gently rolls her onto her back and deposits capsules of his sperm into a pocket on her abdomen.
"She's just using him in a way," Diane Cowan, a lobster biologist and founder of the Lobster Conservancy, says wryly of this crustacean courtship. "What she really needs is a safe place to molt. In science talk, they call it resource defense polygyny, where a male is defending a resource that the female needs."
Indeed, once the female's new shell is sufficiently hardened, she moves out, having no further use for her mate. Chances are good his sperm will go to waste because, if she is young, the female could well molt again before she releases her eggs, shedding the sperm in the process. Or, she may inflict the ultimate snub, jettisoning her ex's sperm packet into the briny blue should she meet a suitor she fancies more. (Pity not the male lobster. Stud muffin that he is, he likely took on a new housemate soon after his erstwhile partner's departure.)
All of which is surprisingly complicated behavior for the creatures we in Maine have nicknamed "bugs," not only for their creepy-crawly appearance, but also for their brains — or rather, their lack thereof. Lobsters have primitive nervous systems similar to those of insects, which suggests they are no smarter than a grasshopper. Yet these ancient members of the arthropod class of animals (invertebrates with segmented bodies and exoskeletons of chitin) continue to reveal previously unknown facets of their lives to scientists like Cowan, who has devoted all of her adult life to studying lobsters. They also are capable of acts of cunning.
Consider, for example, University of New Hampshire zoologist Win Watson's stunning 2003 underwater video that shows lobsters of all shapes and sizes treating a baited trap like a drive-through restaurant. Ninety-three percent of the lobsters that enter the trap gorge themselves on the salted herring, then find their way out, prompting Pat White of the Maine Lobstermen's Association to tell the Christian Science Monitor, "It's pretty discouraging to think that here we, as intelligent human beings, have been trying our best to harvest this thing that has no brain to speak of and they're outsmarting us. But it may be that part of the success of our fishery is due to the fact that our traps are as inefficient as they are." (Watch Professor Watson's videos at the UNH Web site: win.unh.edu/ media/movies.html)
Commercially fished for 150 years, the American lobster, or Homarus americanus, dwells in the North Atlantic from North Carolina to Labrador and is most plentiful in the Gulf of Maine. Lobsters lead an itinerant lifestyle, determined by the seasons. Late spring and summer finds them dwelling in warmer waters inshore ("warm water" in Maine is fifty-two to sixty-two degrees). Come fall, they migrate to the deeper waters fifteen to forty miles offshore, which is why most Maine lobstermen don't fish in winter — getting to where the lobsters are is time-consuming, bitterly cold, and potentially dangerous.
Let's skip the debate over which came first, the lobster or the egg, and return to our lady lobster, who, for the convenience of this narrative, is still carrying her lover boy's sperm when she spawns, an event that occurs about once every two years. As she squirts out her eggs — ten thousand to one hundred thousand of them, depending on her age and size — she also fertilizes them by simultaneously releasing the sperm packets. Attaching the eggs to the underside of her tail with a sticky substance produced by her swimmerets, she carries them for nine to twelve months while they develop. Should a Maine lobsterman catch her during this period, he cannot keep her. Instead, he must cut a small V-notch into her tail fin and throw her back into the sea, and as long as she bears that V-shaped scar, she cannot be sold, even if she is caught not bearing eggs. As a fertile female, she is worth more to the fishery alive and making babies than fetching a few bucks as someone's dinner.
When the eggs hatch, the lobster releases them by fanning her swimmerets. The tiny flea-like larvae spend the next four to six weeks floating on the sea currents, shedding four times in the process. This is the most dangerous time of their lives, Cowan says, because "everything with a mouth big enough eats them." Only one-tenth of 1 percent of them survive to the fourth stage, when they look like miniature lobsters, each one smaller than your thumbnail. The small fry swim toward shore and dive to the ocean floor to find shelter under rocks and weeds.
In these lobster nurseries, which Cowan's Lobster Conservancy studies and seeks to protect, the lobsters live and grow. As they get bigger and bolder, they expand their range and move into deeper waters. It will be at least seven years before any of them reach the minimum legal size for market — 3 1/4 inches from the eyes to the beginning of the tail, about 1 pound. About that same time, the females reach sexual maturity. They get what Cowan calls PMS — pre-molt syndrome — when, like their mother before them, they tidy up their shelters and walk the watery streets in search of the toughest guy in the neighborhood.
Q&A The Lobster Conservancy Photo by Sara L. Ellis
Of the dozen or so researchers who study lobsters in Maine, Diane Cowan follows the most unconventional path. By founding the Lobster Conservancy (TLC) in 1996, she has created a life that allows her to pursue her passion on her own terms. Her research lab is a six-acre lobster pound in Friendship, where she frequently dons scuba gear and spends hours watching and photographing its inhabitants. TLC engages dozens of residents in coastal communities from Massachusetts to Down East Maine in monitoring baby lobsters that can be found hiding under rocks on beaches during the lowest astronomical tides. Cowan and her volunteers spend several days each month, no matter the hour or the temperature, counting, measuring, and tagging the little crustaceans.
Q How did you become interested in lobster nurseries?
A I moved to Maine in August of 1992 to take a two-year teaching position at Bates College. After unpacking my boxes, my friend and I took a drive to the coast, and we ended up at Lowell Cove in Harpswell. There were two little boys on the shore, flipping rocks. We asked, "Hey, what are you guys doing?" They said, "We're playing with the baby lobsters." I was, like, "Whoa!" When I was in graduate school, the big question was, where do the little lobsters that start out as larvae in the open water, settle? It turns out the local people knew, but the scientists didn't.
Q So you kept going back?
A Yes. I involved my students at Bates in a research project counting lobsters. When that position ended, I couldn't go work for someone else because I couldn't leave my lobsters! So I moved to Harpswell and got a job at Cook's Lobster House. I gave them the tide schedule for the whole year and said, "These are the days I need off."
My first volunteers were the people of Harpswell — lobstermen, their wives, and kids, and the wait staff at Cook's. They learned how to measure lobsters, how to tell males from females, the differences between lobsters that are healthy and those that aren't. They learned how science looks at what they knew was there all the time. It is one thing to know the lobsters are there and another to take counts and have numbers that mean something.
My whole life changed. All my life's decisions are ruled by the tides, which is how I eventually ended up in Friendship. I've spent one week out of every month of my life with these babies for the past twenty years, and I am still amazed. I see something new every month.
Q What do you hope to see happen as a result of your research?
A We'd like to see the lobster nurseries protected at the town level. Harpswell has done some things — it adopted an ordinance preventing aerial spraying for pesticides around lobster nurseries. [Some insecticides inhibit the production of chitin, a major component of lobster shells.]
Q How big are the lobsters that you find?
A The smallest ones we find are three-quarters of an inch long. They're so adorable. They're unbelievably cute. I think that's why the volunteers do this.
Q How do you put an identification tag on a lobster that small?
A The tags are a little piece of wire, about one millimeter long and one-quarter millimeter in diameter. They look like a grain of sand. I have a hypodermic needle that has a plunger in it. I pick up the wire, put it in the needle, and then stick the tag into the lobster's foot — one of the legs behind the big claws that have the little pincers. The tag has a number on it that you can read under the microscope so you can tell who that lobster is. Of course, you have to get the tag back, so when I catch a lobster, I run it past a detector that beeps if there is a tag. I dissect the tag out, put it in a vial, then put a new tag in the lobster. The lobster never leaves the field. That's important, especially if you want to keep track of the same individual over time.
Q What are some of the most surprising things you've learned?
A Lobsters have this reputation as being solitary cannibals. That's because we usually encounter them in traps or tanks, and if you confine them, they do eat each other. But in nature, I've seen no evidence of this. In fact, the more I watch them, the more I am amazed at the complexity of their social structure and how they live together. I've found up to thirteen of my babies under one rock — usually they're the smaller ones who are less than a year old, the ones about three-quarters of an inch to an inch long. They are more likely to be with other lobsters than they are to be alone. The next bigger ones are found with other lobsters about half the time. Then as they get bigger, the more you are apt to find them alone.
I used to put lobsters in my pound, and they'd fight — they didn't want to be with each other. But now I just let them walk in and out when they want, so whoever is there wants to be there. There's typically one dominant male, a bunch of females, and a bunch of babies of different sizes, all living in incredibly high density, and they work out who's who, what's what, and they aren't killing each other.
Q You seem to have a real affection for them.
A I love them, and I know them as individuals. But I do eat lobsters — I just don't eat the individuals that I know! I buy my lobsters at the wharf from the lobstermen. Protect lobsters just for the sake of lobsters? No. The scientists and the fishermen want the same things: We want plenty of lobsters in our bellies tonight and plenty to catch tomorrow.
Excerpted from The Maine LOBSTER Book by Virginia M. Wright Copyright © 2012 by Virginia M. Wright. Excerpted by permission of Down East. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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