At first Steneck's experiments were just for fun: he built underwater houses for the lobsters and found that the animals were partial to a section of plastic pipe with a rubber flap over one end. Soon Steneck was spending all his free time sawing up PVC pipe of different diameters, and the houses formed subdivisions. Given choices, the lobsters would shop around. It was almost as if they were picking out blue jeans: Steneck developed a record-keeping system that described smaller lobsters choosing "restricted fit" shelters and bigger ones going for "relaxed fit."
Steneck quickly became disenchanted with the suburban bliss he had created for his lobsters. He concluded that neighborly interaction was lacking and decided to change the zoning. But when he moved the shelters closer together, smaller lobsters moved out. "I set up video cameras," Steneck says, "and it turned out the dominant lobsters were fighting with their neighbors and evicting them." This wasn't as surprising as what Steneck discovered next. When he brought the shelters even closer together, the larger lobsters moved out, and smaller ones moved back in.
A complex set of hard-wired behaviors was governing the interactions that Steneck observed. Lobsters can be aggressive and cannibalistic, but most of the time they will dance delicately around one another to avoid unnecessary violence. If two lobsters of similar size are competing for a shelter, though, they may duel to establish dominance. Each opens its claws wide and spreads them threateningly. Circling like prizefighters, they urinate at each other and lash out with their antennae. If this behavior fails to scare away one of the lobsters, the next contest is a shoving match. Like bucks locking antlers, the lobsters put their outspread claws together and push in a test of strength.
When dominance has been established between two lobsters, if they meet again within seven days they won't bother dueling a second time. The dominant lobster will broadcast its status by secreting chemicals in its urine. Its swimmerets will pulse constantly to spread the urine into the surrounding water, and the losing lobster will recognize the scent and back off. Steneck's experiments revealed that even for a dominant lobster, though, avoiding fights in the first place was sometimes the best alternative. "If you're surrounded by a huge number of other lobsters, you have a choice," he says. "You can spend all day fighting, or you can move from an area of high population density to an area of low population density." Ironically, Steneck himself would soon be facing a similar choice.
Steneck was surrounded by fisheries scientists who thought about lobsters very differently from the way he did. He didn't agree with government modelers that lobsters were overfished. He also didn't think that encouraging more egg production would necessarily result in more lobsters. The complexities of the ecosystem in which lobsters live suggested to Steneck that any number of factors were affecting lobster abundance. The historical evidence from catches, and the large numbers of young lobsters Steneck saw under water, suggested that the resource was healthy.
On Islesford, Jack Merrill also felt that the government's lobster experts were wrong. When he and his colleagues in the Maine Lobstermen's Association got wind of Steneck's research, they were intrigued. Ed Blackmore, the president of the MLA at the time, invited Steneck to a meeting of MLA officers. Steneck remembers it well. "I'd had very little contact with the industry at that point," he says, "and I didn't know anything—I showed up in a suit." To the room full of tough-skinned fishermen in boots and jeans, Steneck may have looked like just another scientist, but when he started talking, they sat up in their chairs. "We didn't agree with everything he said," Merrill recalls, "but it was the first time we'd heard a scientist say anything that made any sense."
By the summer of 1989 Steneck's claim that lobsters weren't being over-fished had provoked the ire of government scientists. Steneck was summoned before a committee of two dozen lobster experts and interrogated. "At academic conferences my work had always been well received," he says. "Everything I said to that committee was later published in international journals. But with the committee it was dead on arrival."
The committee declared Steneck's findings irrelevant, but it was too late. Lobstermen in both the United States and Canada had gotten wind of Steneck's research, and many of them embraced his ideas. As a result, support for a four-stage increase in the minimum size, which lobstermen had agreed to a few years before, evaporated. Negotiations involving President George Bush and Canada's Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, failed to save the deal. The first two increments of the increase had already been enacted, but state legislatures blocked the remainder. Leading government scientists blamed Steneck.
Steneck began to collaborate with two ecologists—Lewis Incze and Richard Wahle, both currently with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, in Boothbay Harbor, Maine—to design an alternative to the government's modeling system. To gauge the health of the lobster population, the team developed a system for measuring the abundance of lobster larvae in the water, baby lobsters on shallow bottom, and brood-stock lobsters in deep water.
In the mid-1980s Wahle had realized that there was a huge blind spot in the understanding of the lobster's life cycle. "Lobster larvae just disappeared into a black box," he recalls, "and came out four or five years later, when lobsters showed up in fishermen's traps." He started asking around. From a fellow diver and lobster researcher he heard about an area where an unusual number of small lobsters had been seen. The information was old, but Wahle went out with his scuba gear and had a look anyway. "It was unbelievable," he remembers. "You'd turn over rocks and boulders, and every little rock had a tiny lobster under it. It was clear that we'd hit on something. This was a nursery ground."
Wahle developed a kind of giant underwater vacuum cleaner for collecting baby lobsters, counting them, and returning them to the bottom unharmed. After sampling several locations in this way, he concluded that shallow coves with lots of cobbles were the ideal habitat for baby lobsters. But not all such coves actually were nurseries. To determine why, Wahle teamed up with Incze, whose specialty was catching larvae by towing fine nets behind a research boat—a job that one of his colleagues has likened in difficulty to collecting insects with a butterfly net towed behind a helicopter. With Incze trawling for larvae on the surface and Wahle diving below, the two men discovered what distinguished the best nursery grounds: they had the best conditions for the delivery of larvae. "The hot spots are where you get a convergence of good habitat, ocean current, and prevailing winds," Wahle explains. The currents and winds were delivering larvae to the nursery grounds from wherever they had hatched.
Surprisingly, lobster larvae themselves have a small say in where they end up. Most fish larvae are helpless creatures, utterly at the mercy of water flow, and so are lobster larvae, up to a point. After hatching they progress through three planktonic stages, a process that probably takes several weeks, during which they are carried by whatever prevailing current catches them. Then they molt to a fourth stage, which biologists call post-larval—or, more affectionately, the "superlobster" stage, because like miniature Supermen, these little lobsters fly through the water with their claws outstretched. "They can swim around powerfully in a horizontal direction, but it's more the vertical dives they're able to control," Wahle explains. This is the only period in a lobster's life when it can swim forward, propelling itself with the swimmerets under its tail, and it lasts no more than a week or so. "They have a biological clock ticking," Wahle says, so the search for protective cobbles is frantic. If a superlobster dives and can't find a nice spot to settle down, it launches itself back into the current and tries again.