"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.