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

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.

During the summer Fernald keeps a third of his traps on short ropes near shore, strategically placed in certain coves and kelp beds, and near underwater boulders where he knows lobsters like to hide and hunt. In early September, though, lobsters begin to move offshore, so Fernald had already shifted much of his gear into middle-depth water—around a hundred feet. This morning's job was to set the first deepwater traps of the season. Seven miles out to sea Fernald pulled a dirty waterproof notebook from a tangle of electronic equipment and flipped through several pages of scrawled notes. He grabbed a pencil and jotted a few numbers directly onto the bulkhead next to his compass; then he squinted up at the GPS plotter above his head and keyed in a way point. He was headed for an underwater valley between Western and Eastern Muddy Reef. He was reassured to see his position confirmed by transmissions from four different satellites, but none of that was necessary: he could, if he had to, go back to navigating with nothing but landmarks and a magnetic compass, as his father still does.

Shortly, Fernald throttled down and studied the colorful blotches on his Fathometer screen, which was connected to a transducer on the bottom of the boat that bounced signals off the sea floor. The screen was painting the bottom as a thick black line at twenty-two fathoms, or 132 feet, which meant that Fernald was directly over the rocky ledge of Western Muddy Reef. He circled the boat a quarter turn and motored slowly east, watching the bottom on the Fathometer drop off and go from black to purple to orange, indicating a patch of cobble and then gravel where the ledge ended. Suddenly the line fell precipitously and settled into a mushy yellow haze at forty-seven fathoms, or 282 feet—a deep bottom of thick, dark mud. He was over the valley.

Like most lobstermen, Fernald believes that lobsters follow warmth. Fishermen think that many lobsters migrate in the spring toward land, to spend the summer in the sun-warmed waters near the shore, and migrate in the fall out to the mud in deeper water, far from the shallows that will soon be chilled by cold winds from Canada. The lobsterman must learn the lobsters' preferred routes along the bottom and intercept the animals on their pilgrimages. To succeed at his profession, Fernald therefore has to be an oceanographer, a sea-floor geologist, and a detective. Lobsters that migrate along the edge of an underwater canyon at one time of year may travel on the floor of the canyon at another time, so for Fernald to set his traps precisely can make all the difference.

When the lobsters show up near shore every summer, the first thing most of them do is go into hiding for a few weeks, to shed their old shells and grow larger ones. This process is called molting, and it is fraught with danger: not only must the lobster expose its jelly-soft body to the hungry world, but it may get stuck. The lobster's body shrinks, the old shell splits open, and the animal's twenty pairs of gills stop beating. The lobster has about an hour to wriggle free before it suffocates. The hardest part is pulling the large claw muscles through the narrow tracts of shell between them and the body—if the lobster can't do so, it will sacrifice one or both claws to live. Free of the old shell, the lobster gets its gills working again. Then for the next five hours it fills its shriveled body full of water. Artificially enlarged by liquid, the lobster then secretes the beginnings of a new shell, which will harden over the coming weeks. The new outfit should last a year or so, depending on the size of the lobster. The old shell is an excellent source of minerals, so the lobster eats some of it to quicken the hardening of the new one. What the lobster doesn't eat it buries with mouthfuls of pebbles, probably to hide the evidence of its weakness and also prevent rival lobsters from raiding its nutrient stash. While the lobsters are molting, Fernald takes advantage of the lull to haul his boat out of the water briefly for repairs and a new paint job.

Presented by

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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