Interviews June 2004

Livin’ la Vida Lobster

Trevor Corson, the author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, talks about fishing for lobsters, and the quirks of our favorite crustacean
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The Secret Life of Lobsters
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Trevor Corson
HarperCollins
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.

—Sanders Kleinfeld


Author photo
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Trevor Corson

 

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.

Early on in the book, you describe lobstermen as the "cowboys of the American East." Can you elaborate on that analogy a little bit, and describe some of the personality traits that characterize lobstermen?

To some extent, that's a stereotype. But I think it's an apt one, to the extent that the cowboy is seen as a rugged individualist out there in the middle of nature, making his living off of these animals that he has to understand and track. Lobstermen are very independent minded. One of the unique things about the Maine lobster fishery is that just about everybody who works in it owns his own boat. There are very few corporate operations.

When American settlers first arrived in New England they viewed lobsters as "junk food that was fit only for swine, servants, and prisoners." Today, they're considered a delicacy. What caused this historical shift in attitude toward eating lobsters?

I think it was the arrival of well-off urban people, who came to Maine between eighty and a hundred years ago in search of pristine nature. These were people from Boston and New York and Philadelphia. Those cities were becoming increasingly complicated places, with immigrants arriving from various countries, so there was an inclination to go north and find the old-fashioned Yankee America of myth. These people were called "rusticators." They headed up to Maine and discovered this quaint, quiet, rural coastline with small villages and people living off the ocean. My great-grandfather was one of those people. He came up from Boston and he fell in love with the natural beauty of the area around Little Cranberry Island. That's my original connection with the place.

Most people who had been living in the cities at that point did eat lobster, but they were only able to eat it from cans that had been shipped from Maine. So when these "rusticators" came to Maine, it was very exciting and novel for them to be able to go down to the wharf and buy a live lobster directly from the lobstermen, take it home, and boil it up in the kitchen. These people then went back to their cities and popularized the idea.

In the epilogue of the book, you talk briefly about PETA and their animal-rights campaign, "Being Boiled Hurts." There is something inherently distasteful about the idea of boiling a creature alive, but you have a much more positive take on lobster consumption. Can you explain your point of view further?

One of the horrors that we live with today is the massive industrialization of food. PETA's perfectly correct to point out that there are billions of animals—birds, chickens, pigs, and cows—that lead terrible lives and are killed in a terrible way in these gigantic industrial slaughterhouses. I don't have any argument with that at all. That's certainly the reality.

But I think PETA's approach to solving the problem—rejecting any eating of animals—misses the point. In fact, it seems to me that they're missing a great opportunity to point out a way it might be done better. Lobsters live a natural life out in the ocean, doing their thing. When they're caught, it's done painlessly, and they're fished sustainably. So lobstermen are taking pretty good care of the natural state of things and are being pretty good to these animals. They give them a lot of free food in the traps over the course of their lives.

The lobster is totally unaware of anything bad happening to it until it's put in a pot. And if you put the animal in the freezer for a few minutes before that, its senses are dulled and it dies pretty quickly when you boil it. Or you can kill it instantaneously by plunging a knife into its head or chopping it in half, which most people don't want to do. But that's the way the professional chefs do it.

If you know the facts about what goes into producing a hamburger and what that cow has been through—the much less natural life it leads, and the frightening way in which it dies in the slaughterhouse—then you can turn this whole thing on its head and conclude that the way we eat lobster is actually a great example of how we should be eating our food.

In the book you discuss how by studying lobster mating practices in the laboratory, it was discovered that females play the lead role in lobster reproduction, in a process called serial monogamy. Can you explain why this model is more evolutionarily advantageous for lobsters than a male-centered reproductive paradigm?

The lobster reproduction model is wonderful. The males get into these big pissing contests—literally. They squirt urine in each other's faces while they fight to determine who's dominant. My friends often point out that it's not so different from certain aspects of human behavior. They'll say, "Oh yeah, I just saw two guys doing that in a bar the other day."

The females get to choose which male they want to mate with. Generally they seem to have a pretty strong preference for the dominant male. He's sitting there, pissing out the door of his house, waiting for females to walk by and smell how dominant and studly he is. The females have a sort of sisterhood, where they collaborate so that they all get a chance to mate with the dominant one. One female will move in with the dominant male for about two weeks, and then she'll move out and the next one will move in. Again, a lot of this is probably accomplished through sense of smell. The females smell each other's urine and the pheremones that they're giving off. They can tell if there's another female shacked up in there, and they'll wait around until that female is done.

One advantage the females get from this arrangement—aside from getting good DNA from the dominant male—is protection. They need to shed their shells in order to mate, which is dangerous for them because it leaves them exposed and vulnerable; they only have this crinkly, soft new shell right after they shed. So the female gets a couple weeks of the biggest bully in the neighborhood's protection. She moves in and sheds her shell and the dominant male protects her while she's doing it, and then impregnates her. And then when her shell's hardened up, she's ready to go. She takes off with his sperm, no commitments.

There are also advantages for the male. Once he proves himself, he can just sit around and wait for the women to come calling. And they come one after another.

You write that the study of lobster behavior has given rise to the creation of bio-mimetic (robotic) lobsters. The Pentagon has spent several million dollars on robotic-lobster research. What uses does the military have for Robo-Lobsters? Have they used them in the field yet?

They haven't been used in the field yet to my knowledge. It's a project that's being undertaken at Northeastern University. The Pentagon's one of the funders. They've gotten to the prototype stage, and one of these robo-lobsters was actually featured in Time magazine recently. One of the suggested uses for the robo-lobsters is as minesweepers. In a beach assault, these things could be put into the water and they could run across the ocean floor in the direction of the beach, detecting mines. Then they could crawl off and detonate themselves, or detonate the mines so that soldiers don't get killed by them.

Of course, it may turn out that the advantages of this research are more about learning to create artificial muscle tissue and machines that can walk than in producing robotic lobster minesweepers. Anybody who's eaten a lobster knows its legs have very interesting joint structures. I think they're learning a lot about artificial walking by trying to mimic the movements of the lobster leg.

Maine's government has been regulating lobster fishing for over a century. Could you talk a bit about its conservation policies?

It's a very complicated, interesting history. The Maine lobster fishery has managed to come up with a conservation ethic that's quite unique. There's a rule that you can't catch lobsters that are smaller than a certain size. The smallest one you'll get on your dinner plate is about one pound. That rule goes back to before the turn of the century. At some point fishermen and the government realized that if you pulled a lot of immature lobsters from the sea, too few would be left to grow up and make babies to replenish the population.

There's also a rule that you can't catch a lobster that's larger than a certain size. The biggest lobsters that can be caught in Maine have a body shell length of about five inches. They call these big ones brood-stock lobsters. They're the ones down at the bottom of the ocean mating and making lots of eggs.

Another conservation practice is the V-notch, which started on a small scale in the 1950s. The government would buy egg-bearing lobsters from fishermen, cut notches in their tails, and throw them back into the ocean. As long as that V-notch is there, the lobster can't be sold, even if it's not carrying eggs the next time it's hauled. Eventually fishermen started doing it themselves. Whenever they hauled up a lobster that had eggs on it, they would cut the little V-shaped notch in one of her tail flippers and throw her back. Each time a lobster sheds and grows a new shell, the V-notch becomes less distinct. Oftentimes if fishermen haul up a V-notch lobster that has a notch that's faded, they'll cut a new one.

In your book, the government scientists are portrayed in a rather negative light. You write at one point that they see themselves as on a mission to "protect the creatures of the sea from the rapacious hand of fishermen." Where did their distrust and distaste of lobstermen come from?

Before the middle of the twentieth century, lobstermen were never big conservationists, and it seems pretty clear that the lobster fishery in Maine was headed for a complete collapse. Around the 1920s the catch really started to go down, and the big lobsters all disappeared. Lobstermen were catching smaller and smaller lobsters. Even after various conservation measures were imposed by the government, a lot of lobstermen just ignored them and continued to catch little lobsters which they sold on the black market. So their track record really was not very good.

By the 1950s and 1960s lobstermen had come around to understanding that conservation was important. But government officials and scientists didn't realize that lobstermen had started to change their mindset. I do think that lobstermen need to be commended for the conservation practices that they have abided by for the past half century. It's a very impressive and unique example in the world's fisheries, and one that can be learned from.

What's the prognosis for the lobster population in the near future?

If you talk to people in Maine now, they're all pretty worried. Lobstermen are worried. Government scientists are worried. The academic scientists who are described in my book are also worried. They're concerned that there's much more fishing pressure on lobsters now than there was even just ten years ago. Catches have tripled in the past fifteen years. Environmental factors have actually caused an inflation of the lobster population. The question is, What if that aberration changes and the numbers return to the norm? It could be a big economic problem if the lobster stock returns to its lower levels, and now you have many more people trying to catch them. That could put serious overfishing pressure on the lobster population.

People are also very worried about disease. Long Island Sound's lobster population was almost completely wiped out by disease a couple of years ago. Rhode Island's lobster fishery is also in big trouble now, partly because of a lobster disease. People don't know whether this is the result of warmer waters or something else. Some fishermen think they should be catching more lobsters than they are now in order to reduce the overpopulation at the bottom of the ocean, which they think is causing disease.

You mention that toxic runoff has the potential to be more disastrous for the lobster population than overfishing. Is anything being done to protect the lobsters from pollution?

I don't know whether that falls under the purview of fisheries management, but it probably should. The Maine fishermen have been paying a lot of attention to what happened in Long Island Sound. There's some concern that spraying for West Nile Virus may have affected the situation. So every time there's a notice about spraying for West Nile Virus in Maine, the lobster industry gets very concerned.

If you asked a lobsterman today what he's most worried about, he probably wouldn't say overfishing but disease problems or toxic runoff issues. People in industry aren't often considered to be advocates for environmental protection, but these guys really are because they want their ocean to be clean and healthy for lobsters, and they want the lobster population to continue to thrive. Whether they can pull it off is another question, but they are definitely on the side of conservation.

Do you hope that your book will bring about any changes in the Maine government's conservation policies?

Basically, I think the lobstermen have done a pretty good job. But at the end of the book, I do suggest that the lobstermen have been kind of stubborn, for no particularly good reason, about rejecting some of the government's suggestions. I think they could afford to be a bit more open-minded.

I think the most important thing, though, is for the lobstermen to figure out what's going to happen if the catch returns to normal levels—how they're going to deal with that. It could become a very ugly free-for-all if the catch goes down. A lot of these people have quite a bit of money invested in their equipment and in their boats, and I couldn't tell you whether very many of them have been saving for a rainy day or not.

It would all go much better if people could figure out a plan of action beforehand. Maine's chief lobster biologist, Carl Wilson, is hoping that the lobstermen will sit down and talk this through and come up with an emergency plan. If the stock does go back to the regular level, it will be a big problem. Maybe my book will encourage people to prepare for that a little bit more.

Sanders Kleinfeld is a freelance writer living in the Boston area. He was recently an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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