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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

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.

Also out on the water that morning, tending his traps in a forty-foot lobster boat, was Jack Merrill, an Islesford lobsterman who, like Bruce Fernald, has been in the business for nearly thirty years. Merrill is gruff, bearded, and thoughtful, and has dedicated much of his life to making lobstermen themselves the lobster's best advocate. To that end he, too, regularly collaborates with Steneck and other researchers. When Merrill caught sight of the Connecticut in the distance, he changed course and headed toward it. Twenty minutes later he throttled down and drew up under the Connecticut's looming bow.

As Merrill pulled alongside, he was met by technicians carrying walkie-talkies and wearing orange flotation vests. Steneck emerged on deck, hailed Merrill, and pulled a notebook from his breast pocket. Merrill produced a notebook of his own and read off a few numbers to the scientist—numbers he would not have shared with his fellow lobstermen. This was one of his many small contributions to the quest for a better scientific understanding of lobsters. "That's where I've seen them," Merrill said. "Big ones, big time."

He then took the wheel of his boat and roared off across the sparkling water, back to his traps. Steneck climbed a steep stairway to the bridge, where he proceeded to map out the coordinates Merrill had given him on a nautical chart. He nodded. "Two rock outcrops," he said. "Little underwater mountains. Just where you'd expect to find big lobsters."

Later in the morning, when the Connecticut was in position and Steneck was on his third cup of coffee, the ROV was put into the water. In the command module on the Connecticut the P3S2's pilot, along with a copilot, Steneck, and one of Steneck's research assistants, monitored a bank of luminescent screens and instruments. The room echoed with sonar pings. Off to one side, with a video monitor of his own, sat the State of Maine's chief lobster biologist, Carl Wilson, a former student of Steneck's.

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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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