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

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.

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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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