The Secret Life of Lobsters
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by Trevor Corson
304 pages, $24.95
Americans have been feasting on lobsters for centuries. When the Pilgrims first landed on Plymouth Rock, lobsters were in such abundance on the New England coast that storms often washed hundreds of the creatures onto the beach. Farmers took advantage of the lobster surplus, using excess crustaceans as feed for livestock and fertilizer for their fields. At the time, the ready availability of lobsters rendered them a low-class meal for the poor and unrefined.
But over the course of the past century lobsters have become a worldwide delicacy, and lobster consumption has been recast as a transcendent dining experience. Until quite recently, however, little was known about the lives of these ocean floor dwellers. Questions abounded: How do they locate prey in the ocean's murky depths? How do they mate? And why do they seem to favor certain types of underwater terrain over others?
In his new book, The Secret Life of Lobsters, Trevor Corson draws on recent biological research to provide a comprehensive account of the eccentricities of daily lobster life. Corson's sense of humor and ability to breathe a human sensibility into his crustacean characters enliven even the most esoteric details of how lobsters hunt, hide, fight, and mate in their natural habitat. He describes a post-mating ritual that was observed in the laboratory as follows:
After copulation, the female huddled in a corner of the shelter while her new shell hardened. In exchange, she left her old shell as a postcoital snack for the male. He began nibbling a few minutes after dismounting—the lobster equivalent, perhaps, of edible underwear.
Equal parts science writing and social history, The Secret Life of Lobsters also tells the story of Maine's lobstermen, whose livelihoods depend on the harvesting of their local waters' fluctuating population. In the course of researching the book, Corson spent two years on Maine's Little Cranberry Island, working as a sternman aboard the fishing vessel Double Trouble. He describes commercial lobster fishing as being a lot like assembly line work, albeit "in a factory that smelled really bad and was constantly moving." During peak harvest season Corson worked grueling ten-hour days hauling lobster traps from the ocean floor, and getting an insider's look at the trade from a sixth-generation lobsterman.
Corson also gives an in-depth account of the lobstermen's clashes with government scientists over effective conservation policies. The lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has spiked in recent years, with lobster catches surging well above previous averages. Nevertheless, Corson worries that a downturn in population levels could spell disaster for Maine's lobster fishery. He hopes some of the issues his book raises will inspire lobstermen and government policymakers alike to plan ahead.
Trevor Corson has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Boston Globe. He was formerly the managing editor of Transition magazine. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
We spoke by telephone on May 14.
How did you first become interested in "the secret life of lobsters"?
I've been interested in lobster fishing since I was a kid. I spent my summers in Maine on Little Cranberry Island, and when I was six I built my own kid-sized lobster boat out of cardboard and painted it red. I would sail around the island streets in my little boat. I got my cousin to dress up as a lobster and I would try to trap him.
When I was in high school I wanted to work on a lobster boat, but that never worked out. And then I ended up going off and doing something completely different: I spent five years traveling and writing in East Asia. When I came back to the U.S., I was a bit homesick for Maine, and going back to Little Cranberry Island and working on a lobster boat seemed like an interesting thing to do.
It wasn't until I was actually working on the boat that I became fascinated by the lobsters themselves. I noticed how focused the lobstermen were on them. All of them were sort of amateur biologists, and they were constantly trying to figure out what was going on at the bottom of the ocean: where the lobsters were going, where they would be at a particular time of year, how the water temperature was affecting them, and so on.
Later on, I started writing an article about lobsters for The Atlantic Monthly. Cullen Murphy, who worked with me on it, encouraged me to focus on the science angle. That's when I began to discover all sorts of crazy things that I had never known about, even when I was working on the lobster boat.
Can you describe an average day as a sternman aboard the Double Trouble? What was the work like?
It was very challenging. On an average day, I would get up at around 4:30 in the morning, and be down at the wharf a bit after five. Even in the summer, it was usually pretty cool at that time of day, and in October, it was hugely breezy and pitch black. I worked on a forty-foot boat, which is pretty small, and with a little wind, it really crashes around. During the peak harvest, you're pretty much working ten-hour days. That's a long time to be smashing around on the water. The deck is constantly pitching in all directions, spray flying everywhere.
We were hauling about 300 to 350 traps a day. The pace was quite fast, and it was sort of like assembly-line work—in a factory that smelled really bad and was constantly moving. I did it for two years, and I have to say my hat is off to the men and women who do it for twenty or thirty years. I don't know how they do it. It's extraordinarily hard work.
What do you think motivates these people to get up every morning and go fishing for lobsters? What drives them to take on this job?
In the past few years, lobstering has become very lucrative. That's the easy answer to your question. But there was a long period when it wasn't as lucrative as it is now. So I think tradition has something to do with it too. If you want to stay on Little Cranberry Island, there's not a whole lot else to do; almost by default, you have to become a lobsterman. There are a few other career paths, but lobstering is really the mainstay of the island's economy. I think the lobstermen are also motivated by being their own bosses. Even though they have to get up at 4:30 in the morning, they're in charge.
The actual fishing is very challenging and exciting, too. It's not just man against nature—going out there and pitting your wits against the ocean and the wind and all that, although there's that element to it. The lobsters move around all over the bottom of the ocean at different times of year, so there's this endless mystery: trying to figure out what the bottom of the ocean looks like, where the good spots are, which way the currents are flowing. It's an exciting challenge to be constantly hunting these animals.