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

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.

By August "the shedders are coming on," as the lobstermen say, and the great autumn harvest begins. Dressed in their new shells, the lobsters are ravenous, and now millions of them meet the minimum carapace length for capture. Lobsters of this size enter the traps in droves. By the time the shedders begin to reach deeper water, Fernald must already have traps in place, which is why he was now setting a gantlet of traps in the valley.

The task was complicated by the fact that the water had become a sloppy mess. A wave sloshed through an open panel in the boat's windshield and hit Fernald in the face and chest. He swore to himself, yanked the window shut, and shook himself off. Then he reached across the bulkhead and switched on the Clearview, a circular plate of glass in the boat's windshield that rotates eighty times a second—fast enough to fling off oncoming walls of water. "It would have been a lot easier to do this yesterday," he grumbled, "when it was flat-ass calm." He and his sternman pulled the first pair of traps from the pile in the stern and secured them on the rail so that they couldn't roll off before the buoy line was attached.

Fernald and his sternman arranged bulky coils of rope on the floor at their feet—carefully, because a tangle could cause mayhem. Fernald tied on a torpedo-shaped buoy, marked with his signature colors in Day-Glo paint; then he put the boat in gear and gave his sternman the signal to throw the first trap. It went over with a splash, and the workday was under way.

Fernald and his fellow fishermen on Islesford want to share their knowledge of lobsters, but few scientists have been interested in listening to them. With the arrival on the scene of Robert Steneck and other ecologists, however, that has begun to change. Steneck and others have spent long days at sea on the lobster boats of Bruce Fernald and his brothers, and have used the waters off Islesford as one of their research stations.

On a gorgeous morning last July Steneck was out in those waters, conducting a census of large lobsters a few miles from shore, the results of which might indicate that the lobster population is not in as much danger as some scientists think. Steneck's first task as an ecologist is to measure the abundance of lobsters and map their patterns of distribution. Baby lobsters and juvenile lobsters are relatively easy to study, because they live in shallow water; all Steneck needs to conduct his research on them is a scuba tank. But large lobsters are another matter—they've been known to live at depths exceeding 1,500 feet, though most of them probably don't venture much deeper than several hundred feet.

Steneck often explores the sea floor in a submarine, but on this trip he was using a submersible robot. The robot afforded him the luxury of staying above water, aboard the seventy-six-foot research vessel Connecticut, operated by the Marine Sciences and Technology Center of the University of Connecticut. The robot was a $160,000 piece of equipment known as a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV—an unmanned submarine that transmits video and other data from the ocean bottom to the mother ship through fiber-optic cables. The craft, operated with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was called Phantom III S2, or, to the team of technicians accompanying it, just P3S2.

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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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