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

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.

But Merrill and his colleagues in the MLA don't think Idoine's recommendations are necessary. They believe that the scientific models fail to factor in the margin of safety that lobstermen have built into their fishery for decades: a pool of large reproductive lobsters, protected not only by Maine's maximum-size restriction but also by a curious practice known as V-notching.

A cornerstone of Maine's conservation ethic, V-notching dates to 1917 and has been largely self-enforced by Maine lobstermen since the 1950s. V-notching is all about making babies. The sex life of lobsters does not get wide public attention, but it has attracted the interest of a small number of researchers. One of these is a biologist named Diane Cowan, a onetime professor at Bates College who is now the president of The Lobster Conservancy, a nonprofit research center dedicated to involving Maine coastal communities in lobster science.

Cowan once spent several months observing the behavior of a male lobster she had named M, which lived with one other male and five females in a tank at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where Cowan later worked as a graduate student. Every night M would emerge from his shelter, boot all the other lobsters out of their shelters, and then return home. The females got the message: M was dominant. The females visited both of the males at their shelters, but M got far more lady callers than the other male. The visits were decorous at first: an interested female would insert her claws into the entrance of M's shelter and wiggle her chemoreceptor antennules to smell him. Then she'd urinate at him from the front of her head, releasing pheromones. In appreciation M would spread her urine throughout his apartment, by standing on tiptoe and fanning the water with his swimmerets—little fins along the bottom of the lobster's tail, arranged in five pairs.

Having ascertained mutual interest, the two abandoned all caution. M's primary concern seemed to be how soon the female would undress for him, and he would show his impatience by boxing the surfaces of her claws with the tips of his. Females can mate only after they shed their shells; Cowan thinks that M's boxing was a way of testing how hollow his lover's shell was in preparation for molting.

"One day I walked into the lab, and I thought there were three lobsters in M's shelter," Cowan says. It turned out to be not a ménage à trois but, rather, evidence of a conventional coupling. It was M, a female, and her molted shell. When a female that wants to mate is ready to molt, she lets the male know by placing her claws on top of his head, in a behavior scientists have termed "knighting." This apparently indicates to the male that he must protect her while she sheds her shell; scientists think the female may also release a sex pheromone that discourages the male from simply eating her, as he might under other circumstances. Once the female is undressed, the male gingerly lifts her soft body, flips her on her back, inserts a pair of rigid swimmerets into a pair of receptacles at the base of her abdomen, and passes his sperm into her. It's like the missionary position, but with double the genitalia.

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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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