"Sir, I have a target, distance two hundred meters," the sonar operator said. "It looks big." The nuclear-powered submarine NR-1 was hovering 600 feet under water, on the edge of the continental shelf. Robert Steneck, a professor of marine sciences at the University of Maine, decided to check the target out. The helmsman nudged the sub forward, and Steneck, a short, energetic man with a thick red beard, slipped below the control room into the cramped observation module. There, through a six-inch-thick glass viewing portal, he was confronted with the biggest lobster he had ever seen. It was a female, about four feet long, weighing nearly forty pounds. She turned toward the sub as it came right up to her, nose to nose, and defiantly shook her claws.
Steneck is an unusual lobster scientist. Many of the leading scientists who track the North American lobster population do so mainly on computer screens in government laboratories, and from that vantage point lobsters appear to be in danger. From the mid-1940s to the mid-1980s Maine's lobstermen hauled in a remarkably consistent number of lobsters. But during the past fifteen years they have nearly tripled their catch, raising fears among many scientists about overfishing. The situation recalls the recent history of the cod fishery in New England, in which an exponential rise in the catch was followed by a devastating biological and economic collapse. In 1996, as lobster catches continued to hit all-time highs, a committee of the country's top government lobster scientists warned of disaster, and they have since recommended drastic management measures to save the fishery.
A failure in the lobster fishery—which has recently become the most valuable fishery in the northeastern United States—would be disastrous. Revenues from lobstering in 2000 topped $300 million. Nearly two thirds of the lobsters were caught in the waters off Maine, where some 4,000 fishermen earned $187 million at the dock for nearly 60 million pounds of lobster. And lobstering doesn't benefit only lobstermen: in Maine, for example, the fishery is a coastal economic engine that generates some $500 million a year altogether.
Most Maine lobstermen believe that their fishery is healthy, perhaps even too healthy. They worry not about a population collapse but about a market collapse. Even the lobstermen who admit that catches could decline don't see anything wrong with that. They say they're the lucky beneficiaries of a boom orchestrated by Mother Nature. If lobster catches soon return to more traditional levels, so be it.
The lobstermen argue that they are better biologists than the biologists are, and there's something to what they say. Fisheries scientists who gauge the effects of commercial lobster harvesting do so using techniques originally designed for tracking fish populations. Because fish are elusive and hard to study in the wild, estimates of how well their populations are faring rely heavily on mathematical models. But lobsters aren't fish. Many of them dwell in shallow coastal water and are easy to observe, though until recently few scientists had bothered to observe them. And unlike fish, lobsters aren't harmed by being caught. Baby lobsters, oversized lobsters, and egg-bearing lobsters that lobstermen trap and return to the sea are none the worse for having taken the bait—in fact, they've gotten a free lunch. Lobstermen know their resource more intimately than do many other kinds of fishermen, and they feel justified in telling the government that lobsters are doing well enough to be left alone. The trouble is that lobstermen tend not to have advanced degrees and scientific data to back up their claims, so their opinion carries little weight. But lately a new breed of lobster scientist has appeared along the Maine coast, epitomized by Robert Steneck on the NR-1. These scientists are ecologists, and they spend inordinate amounts of time under water doing things almost no sane fisheries modeler with a computer and a comfortable office would ever do. They dig for days in the ocean floor to count tiny lobsters; they risk life and limb on shark-infested ledges seventy miles from shore to see how long lobster populations can survive predation. And they go lobstering with nuclear-powered submarines. Gradually they are concluding that some of the things lobstermen have been saying may be right.
Bruce Fernald has the ultimate lobsterman's physique: a low center of gravity and muscular shoulders. He has lived most of his life on an island called Islesford, off the coast of Maine. A pillar of the local community, he is often the one who gets a call when an elderly resident has a heart attack, and the one who rounds up the fishermen for a repair project on the public wharf. Fernald also takes a keen interest in lobster management and science. Along with several other Islesford lobstermen he has become one of Robert Steneck's most enthusiastic collaborators in the quest to collect data about lobsters. Steneck recognizes that lobstermen like Fernald and his colleagues spend far more time observing lobsters than he does, and that their knowledge can aid him in his research.
Fernald has always made his living by trapping lobsters across the 150 square miles of underwater boulder fields, gravel, and mud that surround the island. So have two of his brothers. He has never been down to see the terrain he fishes, but like a blind man who can read a face, he knows what it looks like—each gully, hillock, canyon, and plateau. His understanding of the lobster population around Islesford, developed during the course of a lifetime on the water, is similarly precise.
On a pitch-black morning last September the weather off Islesford was far from perfect: eddies and storm pulses were rolling in and battling with tidal currents inshore; the wind was picking up. Nevertheless, by 5:30 A.M. Fernald was on his boat, with his sternman. Cursing at a swarm of mosquitoes, Fernald checked the oil and cranked up the boat's 300-horsepower diesel engine. With the sky brightening, he pulled up to the thick mooring chain that tethered the boat to a two-ton slab of granite on the harbor floor, freed the vessel, and motored off. A hodgepodge of screens, instruments, and dials glared at him from the bulkhead and ceiling: engine readouts, bilge-pump alarms, a compass, a color Fathometer, a sixteen-mile-range radar, a GPS chart plotter. Also on the boat was a much less sophisticated bit of technology: a double-edged brass ruler known as the measure or the gauge. Since 1874 the measure has delineated the minimum size of a lobster that may legally be landed. In 1933 the State of Maine also instituted a maximum legal size. The main section of a lobster's armor, from the eye socket to the end of the back, is often referred to as the lobster's body but technically is called the carapace. In Maine the carapace must be no less than three and a quarter inches and no greater than five inches. Lobsters not meeting the measure are thrown overboard.
Out on the open water, Fernald gunned the boat to cruising speed while his sternman lifted the lid off the boat's bait bin, filling the cabin with the stench of herring. As the boat bounced against the chop, the sternman stuffed handfuls of gooey bait into small mesh bags with drawstrings. These he would soon be placing in the traps piled in the stern. Fernald had taken the traps up from shallow water a few days before and planned to drop them in deeper water this morning. He maintains 800 traps across a twenty-mile-long swath of ocean. He knows exactly where to place each one from one week to the next, March through December. He takes time off during the worst of the winter weather to repair his equipment.
During the summer Fernald keeps a third of his traps on short ropes near shore, strategically placed in certain coves and kelp beds, and near underwater boulders where he knows lobsters like to hide and hunt. In early September, though, lobsters begin to move offshore, so Fernald had already shifted much of his gear into middle-depth water—around a hundred feet. This morning's job was to set the first deepwater traps of the season. Seven miles out to sea Fernald pulled a dirty waterproof notebook from a tangle of electronic equipment and flipped through several pages of scrawled notes. He grabbed a pencil and jotted a few numbers directly onto the bulkhead next to his compass; then he squinted up at the GPS plotter above his head and keyed in a way point. He was headed for an underwater valley between Western and Eastern Muddy Reef. He was reassured to see his position confirmed by transmissions from four different satellites, but none of that was necessary: he could, if he had to, go back to navigating with nothing but landmarks and a magnetic compass, as his father still does.
Shortly, Fernald throttled down and studied the colorful blotches on his Fathometer screen, which was connected to a transducer on the bottom of the boat that bounced signals off the sea floor. The screen was painting the bottom as a thick black line at twenty-two fathoms, or 132 feet, which meant that Fernald was directly over the rocky ledge of Western Muddy Reef. He circled the boat a quarter turn and motored slowly east, watching the bottom on the Fathometer drop off and go from black to purple to orange, indicating a patch of cobble and then gravel where the ledge ended. Suddenly the line fell precipitously and settled into a mushy yellow haze at forty-seven fathoms, or 282 feet—a deep bottom of thick, dark mud. He was over the valley.
Like most lobstermen, Fernald believes that lobsters follow warmth. Fishermen think that many lobsters migrate in the spring toward land, to spend the summer in the sun-warmed waters near the shore, and migrate in the fall out to the mud in deeper water, far from the shallows that will soon be chilled by cold winds from Canada. The lobsterman must learn the lobsters' preferred routes along the bottom and intercept the animals on their pilgrimages. To succeed at his profession, Fernald therefore has to be an oceanographer, a sea-floor geologist, and a detective. Lobsters that migrate along the edge of an underwater canyon at one time of year may travel on the floor of the canyon at another time, so for Fernald to set his traps precisely can make all the difference.
When the lobsters show up near shore every summer, the first thing most of them do is go into hiding for a few weeks, to shed their old shells and grow larger ones. This process is called molting, and it is fraught with danger: not only must the lobster expose its jelly-soft body to the hungry world, but it may get stuck. The lobster's body shrinks, the old shell splits open, and the animal's twenty pairs of gills stop beating. The lobster has about an hour to wriggle free before it suffocates. The hardest part is pulling the large claw muscles through the narrow tracts of shell between them and the body—if the lobster can't do so, it will sacrifice one or both claws to live. Free of the old shell, the lobster gets its gills working again. Then for the next five hours it fills its shriveled body full of water. Artificially enlarged by liquid, the lobster then secretes the beginnings of a new shell, which will harden over the coming weeks. The new outfit should last a year or so, depending on the size of the lobster. The old shell is an excellent source of minerals, so the lobster eats some of it to quicken the hardening of the new one. What the lobster doesn't eat it buries with mouthfuls of pebbles, probably to hide the evidence of its weakness and also prevent rival lobsters from raiding its nutrient stash. While the lobsters are molting, Fernald takes advantage of the lull to haul his boat out of the water briefly for repairs and a new paint job.
By August "the shedders are coming on," as the lobstermen say, and the great autumn harvest begins. Dressed in their new shells, the lobsters are ravenous, and now millions of them meet the minimum carapace length for capture. Lobsters of this size enter the traps in droves. By the time the shedders begin to reach deeper water, Fernald must already have traps in place, which is why he was now setting a gantlet of traps in the valley.
The task was complicated by the fact that the water had become a sloppy mess. A wave sloshed through an open panel in the boat's windshield and hit Fernald in the face and chest. He swore to himself, yanked the window shut, and shook himself off. Then he reached across the bulkhead and switched on the Clearview, a circular plate of glass in the boat's windshield that rotates eighty times a second—fast enough to fling off oncoming walls of water. "It would have been a lot easier to do this yesterday," he grumbled, "when it was flat-ass calm." He and his sternman pulled the first pair of traps from the pile in the stern and secured them on the rail so that they couldn't roll off before the buoy line was attached.
Fernald and his sternman arranged bulky coils of rope on the floor at their feet—carefully, because a tangle could cause mayhem. Fernald tied on a torpedo-shaped buoy, marked with his signature colors in Day-Glo paint; then he put the boat in gear and gave his sternman the signal to throw the first trap. It went over with a splash, and the workday was under way.
Fernald and his fellow fishermen on Islesford want to share their knowledge of lobsters, but few scientists have been interested in listening to them. With the arrival on the scene of Robert Steneck and other ecologists, however, that has begun to change. Steneck and others have spent long days at sea on the lobster boats of Bruce Fernald and his brothers, and have used the waters off Islesford as one of their research stations.
On a gorgeous morning last July Steneck was out in those waters, conducting a census of large lobsters a few miles from shore, the results of which might indicate that the lobster population is not in as much danger as some scientists think. Steneck's first task as an ecologist is to measure the abundance of lobsters and map their patterns of distribution. Baby lobsters and juvenile lobsters are relatively easy to study, because they live in shallow water; all Steneck needs to conduct his research on them is a scuba tank. But large lobsters are another matter—they've been known to live at depths exceeding 1,500 feet, though most of them probably don't venture much deeper than several hundred feet.
Steneck often explores the sea floor in a submarine, but on this trip he was using a submersible robot. The robot afforded him the luxury of staying above water, aboard the seventy-six-foot research vessel Connecticut, operated by the Marine Sciences and Technology Center of the University of Connecticut. The robot was a $160,000 piece of equipment known as a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV—an unmanned submarine that transmits video and other data from the ocean bottom to the mother ship through fiber-optic cables. The craft, operated with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was called Phantom III S2, or, to the team of technicians accompanying it, just P3S2.
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.
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.
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.
Once the female's new shell had hardened, after a week or so, she moved out and a new female moved in. It turned out that all the females in the tank wanted to mate with M, and Cowan discovered that they were able to time their molts consecutively so that each would get a chance. Cowan describes the phenomenon as serial monogamy, and she has published papers on it; but she has also learned that females don't always follow its rules. "One night another female got in the shelter and took a chunk out of the [resident] female," Cowan says. "Lobsters get PMS—pre-molt syndrome. Before they molt, they have an activity peak and can go a little berserk." When Cowan altered the sex ratio in the tank, things got more confused. "When I had three males and just two females, the females couldn't make up their minds which male to stay with," she says. "They kept switching from male to male instead of pair bonding with just one guy. It was absolute chaos. It was horrible." Cowan altered the ratio further, and the results were even worse: "I tried to have five males and two females in the tank, but the males fought so aggressively that I had to take two of them out. Pretty soon even the remaining males had no legs left. They were walking around on their mouth parts because they were killing each other."
Lobstermen realize that producing offspring is a big commitment for a female lobster—up to twenty months of pregnancy and tens of thousands of eggs. At first the eggs develop inside her body, and she may wait for as long as a year after copulation to extrude them. Then she finds a secluded spot, rolls over onto her back, squirts the eggs onto the underside of her tail, and carries them around for another nine to eleven months. When they finally hatch and become larvae, she releases them into the ocean currents.
Once a female is carrying eggs, she becomes a kind of goddess to lobstermen. Most Maine lobstermen who find an "egger" in a trap will cut a quarter-inch V-shaped notch in her tail flipper (if she isn't notched already) before setting her free, and from then on it's illegal to sell her, whether she's carrying eggs or not. When she molts, the notch will become less distinct, but conscientious fishermen like Bruce Fernald and Jack Merrill always cut a new notch. "She's a proven breeder," Fernald says, "so we protect her." V-notched females and the oversized males that are protected by Maine's maximum-size law form a pool of reproductive lobsters called brood-stock. Lobstermen are convinced that brood-stock lobsters more than compensate for any deficiencies in egg production by smaller lobsters.
They're not necessarily wrong. A female lobster that has mated can extrude about 10,000 eggs if she has recently reached sexual maturity but ten times that if she is bigger. An older female lobster is also savvier: she can retain a male's sperm inside her body, perfectly preserved, for up to several years after copulation. She can use that sperm at will to produce a second batch of eggs. One Canadian researcher estimates that to achieve the egg production of a single five-pound female—a common size for a veteran V-notched lobster—more than ten smaller females would have to be protected. The lobstermen have a different way of saying the same thing: if V-notching were replaced by an increase in the minimum size, the increase would have to be so great that the only lobsters fishermen could legally catch would be too big to eat.
When Robert Steneck started scuba diving off the coast of Maine, in 1974, he was studying echinoderms and gastropod mollusks, but he kept getting distracted by lobsters. He'd been a researcher for the Smithsonian in the Caribbean, and he remains an internationally recognized expert on coralline algae, but in Maine he found a new calling. "There were all these lobsters and this huge industry that mattered to people," Steneck recalls. "I looked in the literature and realized that we knew almost nothing about lobsters in their natural habitats. I said to myself, 'Why the hell am I studying limpets?'" And there was a bonus in the study of lobsters: "At the end of the day you can have them for dinner."
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.
Once Wahle had mastered techniques for counting baby lobsters in their nurseries, he and Steneck realized they might be on the verge of a new era in lobster management. They developed a rigorous sampling protocol, trained a team of student divers from the University of Maine, and, in 1989, initiated a series of annual measurements that they thought might work as a predictive system: a future increase or decrease in lobster catches ought to show up in advance as a fluctuation in the number of larvae and young lobsters the ecologists observed.
Meanwhile, the ecologists began to monitor lobster brood-stock as well. Lobstermen like Bruce Fernald and Jack Merrill had a great deal of data to offer the scientists—fishermen hauled up egged lobsters in their traps every day. Steneck put Carl Wilson, his graduate student at the time, in charge of an ambitious effort to get university interns out on lobster boats counting lobsters, especially V-notched lobsters—a technique called sea sampling. At first the sampling trips took place during the summer months and weren't especially productive. "Jack kept harping on Bob," Wilson recalls, "saying that the fall was when the egged lobsters really migrated offshore—that's when we should do it." In the autumn of 1997 Wilson decided to go to Islesford, spend a day on Merrill's boat, and see for himself. "Jack was right," he says. "It was just mind-boggling. Huge eggers, huge V-notchers, all these egg-bearing females that you never see during the rest of the year, came up in the traps."
While his students worked aboard lobster boats, Steneck descended to the sea floor in a submarine to quantify brood-stock lobsters, including those too large to come up in traps. Steneck continues these dives today, using ROVs, and Wilson, as the State of Maine's chief lobster biologist, now heads an expanded sea-sampling program. So far the data appear to support the lobstermen's contention that the population of large reproductive lobsters is actually bigger than mathematical models suggest.
But the data the ecologists have collected on lobster larvae and baby lobsters complicate the picture. Through 1994 they observed an abundance of both larvae and babies on the bottom. As those baby lobsters grew to marketable size, lobster catches went even higher, hitting records in 1999 and 2000. In 1995, however, Incze had seen a sudden drop in larvae, and Wahle had seen a widespread decline in the baby lobsters he was counting on the bottom. The two teamed up with Michael Fogarty, the population modeler at the National Marine Fisheries Service, to develop a different kind of model—one that would use the ecologists' new data to predict future catches. After five years of low counts of larvae and babies, in the fall of 2000 Incze, Wahle, and Fogarty announced their findings at a scientific conference. Steneck announced that his scuba surveys of juvenile lobsters also reflected a downward trend in some areas.
The ecologists' system had yet to be proved predictive, but Steneck, Wahle, and Incze decided to issue a press release announcing that they had witnessed a decline in larval and baby lobsters. They admitted that the implications for lobstermen were still unclear, but they hazarded a guess that the stunningly high numbers of legal-sized lobsters that fishermen had been catching might start to drop along parts of the coast this coming fall. It was the first time a statement from Steneck had sounded anything like what government scientists had been claiming for decades.
But what he was saying was quite different. Government scientists had been arguing that low egg production could lead to a population collapse. Steneck and his colleagues were suggesting that the decline they had witnessed had nothing to do with either egg production or a collapse. The ecologists believed that egg production was reasonably stable—perhaps even at a surplus, thanks in part to V-notching—but that something was affecting how many eggs survived. Very probably, they thought, fewer larvae than before were getting to the nursery grounds. The question was why.
Steneck, Wahle, and Incze are convinced that the culprit is the ocean itself. They don't deny that a certain number of eggs is necessary for a sustainable fishery, but they argue that even if lobstermen were to protect many more lobsters and allow them to produce eggs, larval biology and ocean currents would still have the final say in whether those eggs became new lobsters. And, as any fisherman knows, the sea is fickle.
Ocean currents are decisive because they carry the larvae from the place where their mother hatches them to the nursery grounds where they settle on the bottom. Lobsters bearing eggs are found in many areas along the coast of Maine, but Steneck has identified what appear to be special concentrations of them in certain places. These findings indicate that some larvae are arriving at their nursery grounds having been hatched just around the corner, but others are probably coming from hundreds of miles away. Now that the ecologists have an idea where egg-bearing lobsters are on the one hand and where nursery grounds are on the other, they hope to track the exact oceanographic links between the two.
Incze, the oceanographer of the group, speaks of "retention" of local larvae and "delivery" of distant larvae. He believes that depending on currents, any given nursery ground can experience both, or one without the other, or—in the worst case—neither. "As oceanographic conditions change and steer currents toward shore, bringing larvae with them, you can have a large increase in the number of settlers coming from different areas of egg production," Incze says. "Alternatively, when those currents steer the water offshore, you can have an entire region decline in settlement." That might explain why the number of larvae and baby lobsters decreased in the second half of the 1990s.
Incze is studying why these changes in oceanographic conditions occur. "Ice melting in the Arctic, cloud cover, and prevailing winds can all affect how water moves around the Gulf of Maine in specific ways," he says. Incze will also be examining the possible influence of the North Atlantic Oscillation, a variation in the distribution of high- and low-pressure systems over the Atlantic Ocean that affects weather patterns and ocean currents. "The North Pacific Oscillation has been well studied," Steneck points out, "and we know it affects the Hawaiian spiny lobster." If the ecologists can learn why currents vary, and can track these variations within the Gulf of Maine, their understanding of what drives the size of the lobster population from one year to the next will dramatically improve.
Scientists will never be able to prevent declines in the lobster population caused by ocean currents, but Steneck and his colleagues hope to be able to warn lobstermen of them accurately, by monitoring the abundance of larvae and baby lobsters. And if Josef Idoine turns out to be right, and egg production drops off dangerously, that should show up too, as a decrease in the number of big lobsters being counted by sea sampling and submarine dives. Either way, the catches of the coming decade will reveal whether the system the ecologists have developed is indeed predictive. Steneck is confident it will work. It's not a ridiculous notion: in recent years a similar system has successfully predicted catches in the rock-lobster fishery of western Australia.
Whether or not lobsters are being overfished, lobstermen face some serious problems. If the banner years end and catches return to their previous levels, overfishing might become a more plausible danger, because there are far more traps in the water than there used to be. And even if no biological disaster ever occurs, an economic one might. Fishermen who have invested too heavily in their equipment will suffer if catches decline, as will families who have grown accustomed to a higher standard of living. Some lobstermen fishing today have no memory of the slower-paced, less lucrative kind of lobstering that the older generation knew. That is because they started lobstering recently—after the collapse of other fisheries. On the whole, however, lobstermen in Maine are thoughtful and broad-minded stewards of a communal resource, and they understand that fishing sustainably is in their best interest. As one Islesford lobsterman puts it simply, "We throw back for tomorrow."
Bruce Fernald's father, Warren, is confident that the lobster population is in good shape. But given what he's seen in his half century of lobstering, he also admits that a decline in catches might be just what the industry needs. "I always relish a shakeout," he says. "Sometimes scoundrels get into the fishery. After a shakeout they don't do so well. The guys that have been hanging in there do okay."
Halfway through last summer Bruce Fernald was afraid a shakeout might already have arrived, too soon for his taste. The lobstering in the spring and summer had been mysteriously dismal, and some of the Islesford lobstermen were beginning to worry that the annual run of shedders would never materialize.
On the day last July when Robert Steneck was exploring with his ROV in the waters off Islesford, Fernald finished hauling his traps early—there wasn't much in them—and decided to swing by the Connecticut. The afternoon breeze was whipping up a light chop, so Fernald had to jockey his boat up to the side of the Connecticut with agile flicks of the throttle and well-timed twirls of the wheel. Steneck emerged on deck and traded banter with Fernald across the trough of seawater splashing between them.
"So far this is the worst season I've ever had!" Fernald shouted over the thump of his diesel engine. "But I'm seeing more oversized lobsters, V-notched lobsters, and eggers than ever."
"That's good!" Steneck shouted back. "We're picking up a lot of larvae in the water. For the long term, maybe things aren't so bad. And I think you're going to start seeing shedders in your traps any day now. We're seeing them on the bottom."
"I'll believe it when I see it," Fernald answered. He backed his boat away from the research ship, leaving a frothy wake. "Come by the island for a beer sometime!" Fernald shouted, saluting Steneck as he pulled away.
A few minutes later the VHF radio on Fernald's boat sputtered to life, and a scratchy voice came over the airwaves. It was Jack Merrill, who had earlier in the day given Steneck coordinates for finding big lobsters. He was calling Steneck on the Connecticut from where he was fishing, fifteen miles out to sea.
Steneck responded, and after a brief exchange said to Merrill, "I don't know if it makes any difference to you where you're fishing, Jack, but I just told Bruce that over here we're starting to see some shedders."
"Oh, yeah?" Merrill said, sounding incredulous. "Throw a few in my traps, will you?"
"Yeah, right!" Steneck said.
The voice of another Islesford fisherman crackled through on the radio. "You saw shedders?" he said, his tone almost pleading. "Where the hell are you? Stay right there, I'm on my way."
As it turned out, the lobstermen of Islesford didn't need submarines to find their lobsters after all. In the middle of August the shedders came on like never before. The fishermen counted their blessings and fished like crazy.