Stalking the American Lobster

Government scientists say that lobsters are being dangerously overfished. Lobstermen insist that stocks are plentiful. It's a familiar kind of standoff—except that now a new breed of ecologist has taken to the waters, using scuba gear, underwater robots, and even nuclear submarines, in order to figure out what's going on. It turns out that the lore and lessons of the lobsterman are worth paying attention to
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"Sir, I have a target, distance two hundred meters," the sonar operator said. "It looks big." The nuclear-powered submarine NR-1 was hovering 600 feet under water, on the edge of the continental shelf. Robert Steneck, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Maine, decided to check the target out. The helmsman nudged the sub forward, and Steneck, a short, energetic man with a thick red beard, slipped below the control room into the cramped observation module. There, through a six-inch-thick glass viewing portal, he was confronted with the biggest lobster he had ever seen. It was a female, about four feet long, weighing nearly forty pounds. She turned toward the sub as it came right up to her, nose to nose, and defiantly shook her claws.

Steneck is an unusual lobster scientist. Many of the leading scientists who track the North American lobster population do so mainly on computer screens in government laboratories, and from that vantage point lobsters appear to be in danger. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s Maine's lobstermen hauled in a remarkably consistent number of lobsters. But during the past fifteen years they have nearly tripled their catch, raising fears among many scientists about overfishing. The situation recalls the recent history of the cod fishery in New England, in which an exponential rise in the catch was followed by a devastating biological and economic collapse. In 1996, as lobster catches continued to hit all-time highs, a committee of the country's top government lobster scientists warned of disaster, and they have since recommended drastic management measures to save the fishery.

A failure in the lobster fishery—which has recently become the most valuable fishery in the northeastern United States—would be disastrous. Revenues from lobstering in 2000 topped $300 million. Nearly two thirds of the lobsters were caught in the waters off Maine, where some 4,000 fishermen earned $187 million at the dock for nearly 60 million pounds of lobster. And lobstering doesn't benefit only lobstermen: in Maine, for example, the fishery is a coastal economic engine that generates some $500 million a year altogether.

Most Maine lobstermen believe that their fishery is healthy, perhaps even too healthy. They worry not about a population collapse but about a market collapse. Even the lobstermen who admit that catches could decline don't see anything wrong with that. They say they're the lucky beneficiaries of a boom orchestrated by Mother Nature. If lobster catches soon return to more traditional levels, so be it.

The lobstermen argue that they are better biologists than the biologists are, and there's something to what they say. Fisheries scientists who gauge the effects of commercial lobster harvesting do so using techniques originally designed for tracking fish populations. Because fish are elusive and hard to study in the wild, estimates of how well their populations are faring rely heavily on mathematical models. But lobsters aren't fish. Many of them dwell in shallow coastal water and are easy to observe, though until recently few scientists had bothered to observe them. And unlike fish, lobsters aren't harmed by being caught. Baby lobsters, oversized lobsters, and egg-bearing lobsters that lobstermen trap and return to the sea are none the worse for having taken the bait—in fact, they've gotten a free lunch. Lobstermen know their resource more intimately than do many other kinds of fishermen, and they feel justified in telling the government that lobsters are doing well enough to be left alone. The trouble is that lobstermen tend not to have advanced degrees and scientific data to back up their claims, so their opinion carries little weight. But lately a new breed of lobster scientist has appeared along the Maine coast, epitomized by Robert Steneck on the NR-1. These scientists are ecologists, and they spend inordinate amounts of time under water doing things almost no sane fisheries modeler with a computer and a comfortable office would ever do. They dig for days in the ocean floor to count tiny lobsters; they risk life and limb on shark-infested ledges seventy miles from shore to see how long lobster populations can survive predation. And they go lobstering with nuclear-powered submarines. Gradually they are concluding that some of the things lobstermen have been saying may be right.

Bruce Fernald has the ultimate lobsterman's physique: a low center of gravity and muscular shoulders. He has lived most of his life on an island called Islesford, off the coast of Maine. A pillar of the local community, he is often the one who gets a call when an elderly resident has a heart attack, and the one who rounds up the fishermen for a repair project on the public wharf. Fernald also takes a keen interest in lobster management and science. Along with several other Islesford lobstermen he has become one of Robert Steneck's most enthusiastic collaborators in the quest to collect data about lobsters. Steneck recognizes that lobstermen like Fernald and his colleagues spend far more time observing lobsters than he does, and that their knowledge can aid him in his research.

Fernald has always made his living by trapping lobsters across the 150 square miles of underwater boulder fields, gravel, and mud that surround the island. So have two of his brothers. He has never been down to see the terrain he fishes, but like a blind man who can read a face, he knows what it looks like—each gully, hillock, canyon, and plateau. His understanding of the lobster population around Islesford, developed during the course of a lifetime on the water, is similarly precise.

On a pitch-black morning last September the weather off Islesford was far from perfect: eddies and storm pulses were rolling in and battling with tidal currents inshore; the wind was picking up. Nevertheless, by 5:30 A.M. Fernald was on his boat, with his sternman. Cursing at a swarm of mosquitoes, Fernald checked the oil and cranked up the boat's 300-horsepower diesel engine. With the sky brightening, he pulled up to the thick mooring chain that tethered the boat to a two-ton slab of granite on the harbor floor, freed the vessel, and motored off. A hodgepodge of screens, instruments, and dials glared at him from the bulkhead and ceiling: engine readouts, bilge-pump alarms, a compass, a color Fathometer, a sixteen-mile-range radar, a GPS chart plotter. Also on the boat was a much less sophisticated bit of technology: a double-edged brass ruler known as the measure or the gauge. Since 1874 the measure has delineated the minimum size of a lobster that may legally be landed. In 1933 the State of Maine also instituted a maximum legal size. The main section of a lobster's armor, from the eye socket to the end of the back, is often referred to as the lobster's body but technically is called the carapace. In Maine the carapace must be no less than three and a quarter inches and no greater than five inches. Lobsters not meeting the measure are thrown overboard.

Out on the open water, Fernald gunned the boat to cruising speed while his sternman lifted the lid off the boat's bait bin, filling the cabin with the stench of herring. As the boat bounced against the chop, the sternman stuffed handfuls of gooey bait into small mesh bags with drawstrings. These he would soon be placing in the traps piled in the stern. Fernald had taken the traps up from shallow water a few days before and planned to drop them in deeper water this morning. He maintains 800 traps across a twenty-mile-long swath of ocean. He knows exactly where to place each one from one week to the next, March through December. He takes time off during the worst of the winter weather to repair his equipment.

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Trevor Corson is author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters and the highly acclaimed The Story of Sushi. His website is TrevorCorson.com. More

Trevor Corson is the author of the worldwide pop-science bestseller The Secret Life of Lobsters and the highly acclaimed The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice.

He spent two years studying philosophy in China, another three years in Japan living in temples and studying Buddhism, and two more years working as a commercial lobsterman off the Maine coast.

He has been an award-winning magazine editor and has written about food, religion, foreign affairs, and a wide variety of other topics for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Atlantic, where The Secret Life of Lobsters began as an essay that was included in The Best American Science Writing.

As one of the leading authorities on sushi in the West, Trevor serves as the only "Sushi Concierge" in the United States, hosting dinner classes in New York and Washington D.C. and educational dining events for organizations, corporations, and private groups. He is also a consultant to sushi restaurants, working to bring a more authentic Japanese experience to Western diners.

Trevor is a frequent public speaker and his work has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, ABC World News with Charles Gibson, NPR's All Things Considered and Talk of the Nation, as well as numerous local television and radio programs; he also appears as a judge on the Food Network's hit TV show Iron Chef America. His website is TrevorCorson.com.
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