Thinking about Lobsters

August 29th, 2005 by

While on vacation in Acadia, Maine, my family participated in a lobster boat tour, culminating in a visit to the tiny village of Frenchboro on Long Island. As I listened to the informative and entertaining talk by the boat’s captain and watched him retrieve a full trap from the ocean floor, I knew there had to be a blog in the compelling story of the lobster.
The life of a lobster is not as dull as you might think. To be sure, as a fledgling lobster, your relationship with your mom would have to be described as pretty remote: you are ferried about as an egg on her tail for the first year or so; you have anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 siblings. But life is good in the cold waters of the Atlantic. Many of your major predators have been fished to the point of near extinction. Every year, when you get tired of the same old outfit, you shed your shell and grow a new one. It’s worth noting that the opportunities for reproduction occur only during the molting period. A hard shell is indeed a formidable barrier to any reproductive behavior. In the summer you hang out along the coast; in the winter, you migrate out to the deep waters, where you forage the warmer bottom waters along with your fellow crustaceans.
Your only problem as a lobster is that your meat is prized in the restaurants and markets of North America and Europe. In Maine alone, the lobster catch has reached 70 million pounds in one year, up from the prior level of 20 million pounds. In an attempt to prevent over-fishing, regulators are trying to strike a balance between the lobsters taken out of the water and those left behind to breed. In Maine, lobster fisherman are required to throw back any lobsters too small and large females with eggs (they carry a tool that quickly shows them whether the lobster is too small or too big for keeping). And because the large females prefer large males (I’ll pass on that one), the latter are also tossed back into the deep cold waters (a pretty good deal for the big guys).
One of the most intriguing aspects of lobstering is the matter of licenses: who is able to set traps and who is not. In the small island communities near Acadia, the issue is hereditary. You have to be born in Frenchboro, a small community of 50 hardy souls nestled in the bay of a remote island, or you have to marry someone who was born there. If you move there when you are two months old, it just doesn’t count. They have a one room school house up to grade eight for the 15 kids, who then attend a regional high school on the mainland by ferry plus bus (weather permitting). (They also have high-speed internet, so I wonder how many kids will want to stay around to take on their birthright careers.) Only these privileged few are allowed to secure a license to set traps in the designated waters off the coast of the island. If you come from somewhere else and happen to set your traps over the line, someone will cut the ropes, for sure.
Up the coast, Cutler used to be one of the less regulated areas for obtaining a lobstering license in Maine. Then times changed and a man from Connecticut moved in, became harbor master, and brought a little organizational discipline to the field. Some of the locals resented the outsider. Read the fascinating story here.
Ghost Doors
When I first heard of the lobster wars — the fierce territoriality of the fisherman, the cutting of lines and abandoning of traps — I wondered what happened to the poor lobsters and crabs caught in the traps. Were they doomed to die in the the narrow confines of the traps? As it happens, there is a way out. Each trap is fitted with a “ghost door” — an escape hatch that is held in place by hardware that disintegrates after a month or two. If for any reason a trap is not retrieved in the usual week or so, the ghost door will eventually open and the lobsters will be able to escape. Of course, while waiting for the door to open, the bigger lobsters will eat the smaller ones, and the crabs as well. The door opens, and one big lobster crawls out. So much for family ties…
Extraction Economies
Lobster fishing is an extraction industry, as are mining and lumber. The valued natural resources are extracted and sold, usually until the stocks are exhausted. We have seen the results of over-fishing in the great waters of the north Atlantic: the stocks are depleted and the fishing industry is dying. Lobstering is a precarious and hazardous pursuit, but it appears that steps have been taken to ensure that lobsters will continue to thrive in their chosen habitat. I could barely keep my feet in Maine’s frigid waters for a minute, but to a lobster, it’s a comfortable home, the perfect place to scuttle among the rocks, periodically upgrade the wardrobe, and check out the molting action. Not my idea of fun, but it appears to work for them.