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

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.

The pilot steered the ROV toward the bottom with a pair of joy sticks. On the video monitors a rain of plankton gave way to a lunar landscape of pebble fields and small boulders. P3S2 was hovering at a depth of 104 feet. Its spotlights and three video cameras illuminated tall sea anemones growing on the rocks like stalks of broccoli. Fish darted around mussels, scallops, and the occasional starfish.

"This looks like a high-rent district," Steneck said. Steneck's research assistant switched on the video recorder and noted time and depth on a clipboard. Moments later a lobster antenna became visible.

"There's one," Steneck said. "He's hiding between those two boulders."

The pilot pressed his joy stick for a slow-motion dive. P3S2 nudged the boulder, and the lobster's antenna twitched. The pilot pulled the ROV back, and the lobster emerged, strutting forward, claws extended and antennae whipping the water. If he had been able to see the ROV, the lobster might have been unnerved—but despite the fact that they are endowed with some 20,000 eye facets, lobsters have terrible vision. They have sensitive touch receptors, however, and an acute sense of smell. Two long antennae and thousands of tiny hairs on their claws and legs give them ample information about their environment. Like houseflies, lobsters can even taste with their feet. A second pair of shorter antennae, known as antennules, contain 400 chemoreceptors and give lobsters most of their hunting and socializing skills. But P3S2 didn't emit a recognizable scent.

"That's it, baby," Steneck said to the lobster. "Work the camera." Steneck wanted a side view, in order to get a laser measurement. When the lobster turned to walk away, Steneck said, "Paint him with the lasers." A pair of laser beams hit the lobster squarely on a claw and the tail, providing a gauge of its size. This routine was more or less what Steneck and his team would be doing every day, ten hours a day, for the coming week.

"Is that another set of claws right there?" the ROV pilot asked, aiming for another boulder. "I don't think so," Steneck said. "That looks like a molt. Empty shell." But Steneck's attention was attracted by something else: the pebbly ground at the base of the boulder was a lighter color than the surrounding bottom, and had been carved into a small crater. "Hold it," Steneck said. "We've got recent sediment-reworking here. Let's take a closer look." The investigation paid off. The actual lobster, perhaps still soft from having recently shed its shell, was hiding around the corner, its presence betrayed by the burrow it had dug for itself.

The lobster wouldn't budge from its protected spot, but Carl Wilson saw a retreating shape in a corner of the screen. "Is that one?" he asked. The pilot changed course, and P3S2 slowly gained on the lumbering lobster. This one clearly hadn't shed recently—large barnacles grew on its shell, an indication of its size, because bigger lobsters molt less often. Alerted to a presence behind it, the lobster spun, faced P3S2 head on, lifted its claws wide, and ran directly at the ROV. "You're going to lose," the pilot said. At the last second the lobster seemed to reach the same conclusion, and it backed off.

The first lobsterlike decapods probably evolved around 400 million years ago. Today there are thirty or so kinds of clawed lobsters, and forty-five species of clawless ones. By far the most abundant clawed lobster is Homarus americanus, or the American lobster. To the European explorers who arrived on the Maine coast in the 1600s, this greenish-brown crustacean looked familiar, because European waters are home to the American lobster's closest cousin: the bluish-black Homarus gammarus. But nowhere else in the world is Homarus as plentiful as it is in the waters off Maine. The explorers caught lobsters easily with long hooks or by dragging nets; later fishermen used a net hanging from an iron hoop and shaped like a cauldron—thus "pot," a term still used today to refer to a trap.

The basic design of the modern lobster trap was developed in the 1830s, and except for a switch from wood to wire, it hasn't changed much since. The number of traps in the water has changed dramatically, however. Records at the Maine Department of Marine Resources indicate that 50,000 to 100,000 traps were in use in 1880. Today some 2.8 million traps blanket the Maine coast.

A lobster trap is a wire-mesh rectangle almost four feet long, divided into sections: a "kitchen" and one or two "parlors." The bait bag hangs in the middle of the kitchen. On either side of the kitchen the wire is replaced by a ramp, made of knit twine, that ends in a small hole. Lobsters have an easy time walking up the ramp and through the hole into the kitchen; finding the hole and getting back out is more difficult. Many of those who can't find their way out are suckered into trying to escape on a third twine ramp—which leads to the parlor, designed to keep them stuck until the trap is hauled in by a lobsterman. Little lobsters have a Get Out of Jail Free card: the parlor is fitted with vents through which they can usually escape. Weather permitting, Bruce Fernald hauls his traps about every four days, and generally leaves them in the same area for several weeks. When lobsters begin to migrate elsewhere, he shifts the traps to follow them.

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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 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
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