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

Today's lobster trap is a remarkably inefficient tool for catching lobsters. Winsor H. Watson III, a zoologist at the University of New Hampshire, and his graduate students have developed a device Watson calls a "lobster trap video," or LTV, which consists of a trap outfitted with a camera that looks down through a Plexiglas roof; a waterproof VCR unit; and a red lighting array for night vision. Watson can set the LTV on the bottom and run it for twenty-four hours to see how many lobsters enter the trap and what they do once they're inside.

Soon after a trap is set, lobsters smell the bait and approach. If the kitchen is unoccupied, more than half of those that approach will eventually enter and nibble at the bag of fish for about ten minutes. An astounding 94 percent of those walk right back out again. Furthermore, while one lobster is eating, other lobsters are often battling among themselves to be the next to enter, thus reducing the potential catch drastically—especially if the one eating also fights off any intruders on his meal. In one twelve-hour period recorded by Watson lobsters in the vicinity made 3,058 approaches to the LTV. Forty-five lobsters actually entered, and of those, twenty-three ambled out one of the kitchen entrances after eating. Twenty prolonged their stay by entering the parlor, but seventeen of those eventually escaped, leaving just five in the trap. Of those five, three were under the legal size. When Watson hauled the trap up, he'd caught a grand total of two salable lobsters.

Lobstermen like it that way. In Maine they have lobbied to outlaw other methods of catching lobsters, and during the past several years they themselves have imposed limits on the number of traps each lobsterman may set. Trapping provides a steady year-round job with time off in the winter, and it allows lobstermen to harvest only certain lobsters and throw back the undersized, oversized, and egg-bearing animals that are so crucial to the long-term health of the fishery. Most species that have collapsed from overfishing fell victim to radical improvements in fishing technology. "It's a very primitive trap we use," one lobsterman says, "and that's an important part of Maine law. As long as we keep using traps, we'll never catch them all. We're traditional in a lot of ways. I think that's going to save us in the long run."

The faster fishermen at Islesford can haul more than 450 traps in a single day. It's a demanding, manic routine, and it's dangerous. Most of the lobstermen on Islesford have tales of getting tangled in an outgoing rope as they race from one trap to the next; this can drag a man to his death in seconds. Two years ago a loop of outgoing line caught Jack Merrill around the ankle. He threw himself down as he was dragged aft and managed to lodge himself under the stern deck. His sternman rushed to the controls and threw the boat out of gear, saving Merrill's leg.

Fisheries scientists think that the hell-bent routine of lobstering is part of the reason lobsters are overfished; the race for profits, they feel, means that too many lobsters are getting trapped too soon. According to the scientists (though lobstermen dispute this), almost all of the annual catch now consists of new shedders—lobsters that have just molted up to the minimum legal size—instead of a more diverse sampling of sizes, and that doesn't bode well for the ability of the population to sustain itself.

Josef Idoine is employed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a division of the NOAA, as the chief federal biologist responsible for lobster. Idoine, who works at the NMFS laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was not originally a lobster scientist. In college he majored in English literature, but the biological sciences and math had always captivated him. He later decided to pursue a degree in fisheries science. The professor with whom he studied modeled not only fish populations but insect ones as well, and Idoine realized that he could apply the same modeling techniques to lobsters. "Lobsters and insects both grow by molting," he says. "They're really not that different."

One problem Idoine faced—a problem that he continues to wrestle with today—is that scientists have yet to discover a reliable method for determining the age of a lobster. This means that although most fisheries scientists can rely on age data when they model fish populations, lobster modelers have to develop estimates of growth rates. Early in life lobsters molt frequently—up to twenty-five times in their first five years. After that they molt about once a year for a while, and when they're bigger, the rate drops again. Complicating the picture is the fact that female growth slows during reproduction, when energy goes into producing offspring instead.

In the 1980s Idoine and Michael Fogarty, a colleague at the NMFS, published papers that modeled a hypothetical lobster population. Modeling lobsters was in itself nothing new. Fogarty had already developed models describing the population dynamics of lobsters, and lobster scientists elsewhere had built careers around similar projects. But the Fogarty-Idoine model seemed to give scientists a better idea of how lobstermen might be affecting the lobster population's ability to sustain itself. The model suggested a commonsense idea: if lobstermen caught too many lobsters of too small a size, not enough lobsters would get the chance to grow larger, mate, and replace the lobsters being caught.

The Fogarty-Idoine model became an important part of a combined federal and state lobster-management system. Government scientists used the model to analyze the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine. The analyses led scientists to conclude that lobstermen were indeed risking the long-term sustainability of the resource by fishing too much. In the 1990s Idoine collaborated with another NMFS colleague, Paul Rago, to refine the model further; in its current version it is referred to as the Idoine-Rago model.

Lobstermen are suspicious of mathematical simulations like the Idoine-Rago model. Jack Merrill, of Islesford, has long been one of the model's toughest critics. Like Idoine, Merrill studied both literature and science in college. When he started lobstering, in the early 1970s, he joined the Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA) and soon became its vice-president.

In the 1980s Merrill began collecting scientific papers on the lobster fishery. He noticed something strange: fisheries scientists had been using population models to predict the crash of lobster stocks for years, and so far not only had they been wrong but they'd had it completely backward—lobsters had done nothing but increase in numbers. When Fogarty and Idoine's papers came out, Merrill and other MLA officers met with Idoine and his colleagues at Woods Hole. "We asked, 'Why are you telling us we're overfishing?'" Merrill remembers. "They said, 'The formula tells us that you're overfishing.'"

The disagreement between Merrill and Idoine—and between almost all lobstermen and government scientists—boils down to a question of small lobsters versus big lobsters. Everyone agrees that in Maine's frigid waters only about 15 percent of lobsters are sexually mature at the minimum legal size. Lobstermen are harvesting prepubescents, which suggests to Idoine that very few female lobsters ever get the chance to mate. "That's what keeps me awake at night," Idoine says with a laugh. "Thinking about female lobsters." But the problem shouldn't be worth losing any sleep over, because a solution seems apparent. Government scientists have long recommended additional controls on lobster fishing, such as closed seasons and limits on the total number of traps in the water, but central to most management proposals has been raising the minimum legal size. That way more females would have a chance to mature and reproduce before they're caught. "Along with controls on fishing effort, raising the minimum size gives you a margin of safety," Idoine explains.

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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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