The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

by Trevor Corson


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The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson

In this intimate portrait of an island lobstering community and an eccentric band of renegade biologists, journalist Trevor Corson escorts the reader onto the slippery decks of fishing boats, through danger-filled scuba dives, and deep into the churning currents of the Gulf of Maine to learn about the secret undersea lives of lobsters. In revelations from the laboratory and the sea that are by turns astonishing and humorous, the lobster proves itself to be not only a delicious meal and a sustainable resource but also an amorous master of the boudoir, a lethal boxer, and a snoopy socializer with a nose that lets it track prey and paramour alike with the skill of a bloodhound. The Secret Life of Lobsters is a rollicking oceanic odyssey punctuated by salt spray, melted butter, and predators lurking in the murky depths.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060555597
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/10/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 279,694
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

About the Author

Trevor Corson spent his boyhood summers on the Maine coast, and later in life he worked aboard commercial lobster boats. As a journalist, he has written on subjects as diverse as organ transplants, Japanese Buddhism, and Chinese politics, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. The Secret Life of Lobsters -- Corson's first book -- originated from an essay he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Boston.

Read an Excerpt

The Secret Life of Lobsters
How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

Chapter One

A Haul of Heritage

The oceans of the earth abound with lobsters. Lobsters with claws like hair combs sift mud in offshore trenches. Clawless lobsters with antennae like spikes migrate in clans in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Flattened lobsters with heads like shovels scurry and burrow in the Mediterranean and the Galapagos. The eccentric diversity of the world's lobsters has earned them some of the most whimsical names in the animal kingdom. There is a hunchback locust lobster and a regal slipper lobster. There are marbled mitten lobsters, velvet fan lobsters, and even a musical furry lobster. The unicorn and buffalo blunt-horn lobsters inspire admiration; the African spear lobster, the Arabian whip lobster, and the rough Spanish lobster demand respect.

Nowhere in the world, however, is the seafloor as densely populated with lobsters as in the Gulf of Maine. Though a less sophisticated creature than some of its clawless counterparts, the American lobster, scientific name Homarus americanus, is astonishingly abundant.

But at five o'clock on a September morning in 1973, the young Bruce Fernald didn't know that, and he wasn't interested.

"Hey, Bruce." The door opened. "Come on, son, get up. We're going fishing."

Bruce groaned, rolled over, and cracked open an eye. Still dark. Jesus. Almost four years in the navy, riding nights away in the bunk of a destroyer, rounding the Cape of Good Hope in forty-foot seas, and what happens the first time he tries to sleep in his own bed back home? His father wakes him up before dawn to get in a boat.

Sure, Bruce thought as he yanked on his socks, when I was fourteen I hauled traps by hand from a skiff, like every other kid on Little Cranberry Island. Does that automatically make me a lobsterman? The world was big and in the navy Bruce had sailed all the way around it. He wasn't certain he wanted to condemn himself to the hard life his forefathers had endured, hauling up what the old-timers called "poverty crates" full of "bugs."

But Bruce's first day of lobstering with his father turned out to be lucrative enough to warrant a second day, and after that a third. As autumn settled over the island the days aboard his father's boat became weeks. At the helm was Warren, his dad, and on the stern was the name of his other parent -- Mother Ann. Bruce stuffed bait bags with chopped herring. He plugged the lobsters' thumbs with wooden pegs to immobilize their claws so they wouldn't rip each other apart in the barrel. He coiled rope. He hefted the heavy wooden traps. And he observed his father at work.

Some of Warren's white-and-yellow buoys followed the shoreline like a string of popcorn. Warren knew just how close he could get to the rocks without endangering the boat, and he showed Bruce how to line up landmarks and steer clear.

Some of Warren's buoys bobbed in ninety feet of water, running in a line east to west half a mile from the island. Unwritten rules along most of the Maine coast governed just how far a fisherman could go before he was setting traps in someone else's territory. Bruce watched where his father went and memorized the landmarks that would keep him close to home.

Come November, Warren and Bruce were hauling traps in water twenty fathoms deep -- 120 feet -- a mile south of the island in open sea. It was cold, especially when the breeze picked up and blew spray in Bruce's face.

"Okay, son, where are we now?" Warren asked, bent over a tangle in the rope.

Bruce, his hands numb, glanced up to see which of the mountains of Mount Desert Island loomed over the lighthouse on Baker Island, half a mile southeast of Little Cranberry. Depending on how far to the east or west the Mother Ann was positioned, the lighthouse would line up with a different hill.

"Cadillac," Bruce answered.

Cadillac Mountain, like the automobile of the same name, honored the first European settler in these parts. In 1688 small-town French lawyer swindled a land grant to Mount Desert Island from the Canadian governor. He invented the aristocratic title "sieur de Cadillac" for himself and lorded over the uninhabited island with his new bride for a summer. Bored, he soon retreated inland to found a trading post called Detroit. The Cadillac car still bears his fake coat of arms on its hood. The lobstermen of Little Cranberry had put Cadillac's legacy to their own use. Like the other hills of Mount Desert, his mountain rising from the sea was a map to the treasures under the waves.

In a more literal sense too, Warren and Bruce were fishing on Cadillac Mountain -- or at least on pieces of it -- and that was what made these waters hospitable for lobsters. Starting a few million years ago, sheets of ice had rolled down from the Arctic for eighty thousand years at a stretch, interrupted by brief warm spells of ten thousand or twenty thousand years. During the most recent ice age the glaciers had scraped up stone from all over Maine and carried it south, carving away the pink granite of Mount Desert Island on the way. The glaciers had pressed on for another three hundred miles before grinding to a halt, encrusting the Gulf of Maine and the continental shelf in ice as far south as Long Island.

When the glaciers melted fourteen thousand years ago they unveiled the sensuously sculpted hills and valleys that now constitute Acadia National Park. The glaciers also left behind vast fields of debris -- boulders, cobble, pebbles, and gravel. Glacial runoff sorted the finer sediments into beds of sand or muddy silt between ledges of hard rock ...

The Secret Life of Lobsters
How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean
. Copyright © by Trevor Corson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Setting Out, 20011
Part 1Jrapping
1A Haul of Heritage21
2Honey Holes31
Part 2Mating
3Scent of a Woman43
4The Man Show53
5Sex, Size, and Videotape66
Part 3Fighting
6Eviction Notice87
7Battle Lines104
8The War of the Eggs117
9Claw Lock128
Part 4Surviving
10The Superlobsters141
11Attack of the Killer Fish155
12Kindergarten Cops172
Part 5Sensing
13See No Evil189
14Against the Wind200
Part 6Brooding
15Gathering the Flock211
16Victory Dance224
17Fickle Seas237
Epilogue: Hauling In, 2001259
AppendixHow to Cook a Lobster273
Author's Note279
Further Reading283

Reading Group Guide


Once considered "poverty food" by colonial settlers, American lobsters are a culinary treat enjoyed by millions the world over. But lobsters are much more than just a main course -- and in The Secret Life of Lobsters, journalist Trevor Corson dives deep into their intriguing story and reveals the fascinating habits and behaviors of these remarkable creatures.

The Secret Life of Lobsters also takes us on a sea-sprayed voyage with fishermen and scientists as they join forces to preserve the future of these clawed predators, whose undersea life has remained murky as the ocean depths. Through an engrossing combination of science, history, and local folklore, Corson sheds light on the centuries-old tradition of Maine lobster fishing while showcasing the exhaustive (and sometimes quirky) scientific experiments mounted to research Homarus americanus -- and the result is a narrative that is as interesting, engaging, and surprising as the lobsters themselves.

Named a best science book of 2004 by USA Today and Discover and a best book of the year by Time Out New York, The Secret Life of Lobsters is an entertaining and rollicking odyssey -- and one that will forever change how you look at the world's favorite crustacean.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Before reading this book, did you know much about lobsters and their behaviors? What are some of the more surprising aspects of lobster life that you've learned?

  2. In discussing the economic perils of pursuing lobstering as a living, Bruce Fernald mentions an old saying referring to lobster traps as "'poverty crates' full of 'bugs'." (p. 22) Given the limited -- and somewhat unreliable -- financial reward that lobstering has offered in the past, why do you think so many children followed their parents into this line of work?

  3. "It is said that lobstermen are the cowboys of the American East." (p. 4) Cowboys -- and lobstermen -- have come to embody a sense of rugged individualism and independence, as a result of their exploration of unknown frontiers. What are some examples of similar American livelihoods?

  4. The exhaustive work of the scientists and biologists depicted in this book can be described almost as a calling. Discuss the differences between a profession and a vocation.

  5. Different views are expressed about how to best maintain the lobster population. Before you began to read this book, which group would you have been more inclined to believe -- scientists, government officials, or lobstermen? Why? After having read the book, do you feel the same way?

  6. In Chapter 16, Jack Merrill prepares for his first underwater dive. Is it surprising that he's never seen the ocean floor in his 25 years of lobstering? Consider, too, the complaints by lobstermen that scientists rarely join them on lobster boats to observe their work; is that surprising as well? Why or why not?

  7. In the acknowledgments, the author refers to his lifelong "lobster obsession." What similar obsessions might you share? What do your obsessions, and the degree to which you have such obsessions, reveal about you?

  8. The author describes life on the remote island of Little Cranberry Island in vivid detail. Would you be able to live in such a place? What are the benefits and drawbacks of living in an isolated location?

  9. The battle between government scientists and the Maine Lobstermen's Association to protect the lobster population is described throughout the book. At one point, Jack Merrill reads a section of an independent report that supported his argument for not changing the minimum-size law; the government, however, had continued to promote the new law despite the independent report. Bob Steneck had trouble gaining access to government evidence that reinforced his theories. Using science to promote a particular policy or point of view -- how else is this demonstrated in society today?

  10. Government regulators produce reports and research to support raising the minimum-catch size, while lobstermen record data via relatively crude methods (v-notching, Katy Fernald's coffee cans). Hard scientific research versus anecdotal evidence collected over multiple generations -- which are you more inclined to believe? Why?

  11. Many people might be squeamish about consuming lobsters after reading this book. But most of the people profiled here heartily enjoy eating lobsters ("Knowing all about lobsters makes them a more interesting meal," page 275). Can appreciation and respect for an animal be reconciled with the desire to eat it? Why or why not?

About the Author

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Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
Yes, PMS – post-molt syndrome... The Secret Life of Lobsters is an exceptionally well written interwoven story. Corson does an excellent job of presenting the biology of lobsters as the scientists and lobstermen seek out these crustaceans and the struggle between the agents of public policy and those with hands in the sea. The book highlights population dynamics and ecology without the burden of technical vocabulary. While the book is fun to read, it also sheds important light on scientific process, public policy, and local ways of life. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Trevor Corson's work features an excellent blend of American lobster biology, history, and politics as well as the story of scientist and lobstermen whose lives revolve around this crustcean. This is one of the few stories that paints fisherman/hunter or in this case lobstermen in a good light.The story shows how lobstermen had become the preservers of the American lobster even before the political machine was envolved. This is not just a story about nature but a human interest story. You will not be able to put it down. A must read. You will definately have a new found appreciation for that lobster on your plate.
Jean-and-John More than 1 year ago
Every now and then I like to read what I would call an "eclectic" book, that fits into a niche in my reading. This fit the bill. I learned something about lobsters, about history, some science, and about the people who make sure that the lobster fishery of Maine remains sustainable in the long term. A great read.
SkipAH More than 1 year ago
Excellent book. I am from Maine and I fished on the Maine coast. All the years I lived in Maine and remembered how the Feds kept reporting overfishing but I had lobsterman friends and didn't believe the Feds because the lobsterman had their own way to populate the fisheries by throwing back the egg laden females. I find it extremely interesting that once satellite technology was used they came up with different conclusions. Also once the trawlers came closer to the coast fishing for cod the lobster population exploded. I liked it so well that I purchased another three books, two for brothers in Maine and a brother in law in Alaska.
Treeman More than 1 year ago
A great mix of history, biology, and sociology. Sometimes the jumps from one view to another were hard to follow but easy enough once you are into it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really loved reading this book, I couldn't put it down. I really liked how Corson blended the history, politics and science of lobsters together, it made the book very interesting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book was reccommended to me by a friend, who's family are some of the main characters in the book. I wasn't able to put the book down. Trevor Corson does an outstanding job of mixing the science of lobsters with the stories of the people whos lives revolve around lobsters! The book is very entertaining and full of interesting facts!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I never thought I would find lobsters fascinating, but this book changed that!
jmcclain19 on LibraryThing 4 days ago
All you've ever wanted to know about lobsters, and so much more. We're talking how to fish for them, how to cook them, how to eat them, how to study them in the ocean, how to study them in a lab, how to learn about their behaviors, how they mate, how they build homes, and so on and so on. All wrapped up in the format of a story about fisherman and scientists. Does a pretty good job of straddling the line between the fisherman and the scientists, two groups typically at odds in the oceans of the world.
Louise_Waugh on LibraryThing 4 days ago
found this when I got to the cottage this summer, a few minor scenes set on the Island (not mentioned by name, they place Lowell's Cove on Orr's Island but mention Cook's Lobster House)I found it fascinating because of the local ties, your mileage may differ.
JHINIE on LibraryThing 4 days ago
The Secret Life of Lobster didn¿t quite turn out to be the book I expected it to be. Being a lobster lover myself, I was intrigued by the title. Also, being a fan of the fantasy genre, I believed this book to be a story of a secret lobster civilization, told from the lobster¿s point of view. But no; it turn out to be much, much different.In short, this was an extremely informative book about the history and modern practices that go along with our favorite crustacean. The Secret Life of Lobsters jumps back and forth between two distinct story lines, which, from my view, was done with great execution. There is, first and foremost, the story of an aquatic researcher who has taken the opportunity to study the patterns and behavior of the migratory lobster from the vessel Double Trouble. What makes this story so special about this man is that he had grown up surrounded by this unique industry. It is interesting to see how large a role lobster fishing played in his life. From the time he was a boy, he hoped that one day he would be a lobster fisherman like his father and have his very own boat. However, this isn¿t just a no-frills tale.Lobster fishing is an extremely competitive job; everyone¿s looking for the biggest slice of the pie. Out in those waters, there was no shortage of competition or rivalry. The intensity this book shows about lobster fishing and even studying lobsters is respectable. All the events in this book are true, which does make reading The Secret Life of Lobsters all the more intriguing. Plus, the story has a great ending, but of course, that is for you to find out silly. Seriously, this is a great to story that educates you on a subject you normally wouldn¿t believe you would need to be educated about. But trust me; you need to learn about lobster to better enjoy the delicious taste of such a creature that takes the hard work of so many people to capture. I recommend this book to anyone of any age. So please, pick up a copy today.
msjoanna on LibraryThing 4 days ago
What a completely random and thoroughly enjoyable book this is. I have no particular interest in lobsters--other than finding them a tasty dinner option occasionally. I've never been to the Cranberry Islands in Maine and I'd be surprised if to learn that I've met any lobster fishermen. Nonetheless, I was completely absorbed by both the details of lobsters and the efforts by scientists to learn more about their lives and the lives of the fishers and fishing village itself. I'd definitely recommend this book as an interesting book nearly guaranteed to be different from whatever you read just before it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was surprised by how funny and interesting this book is A good read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BJoanie More than 1 year ago
This book is full of interesting facts along with a great story about lobsters and those who love them. You will still be able to enjoy eating your lobster before, during and after reading this book. You might even learn to give thanks to the lobster that gave up his/her life for your meal.