July 15, 2010
When it is time to reproduce, the male lobster acts more like the male bowerbird than a crustacean.
Diane Cowan, executive director of the Lobster Conservancy, inspects a lobster at the lobster pound at the Lobster Conservancy on Friendship Long Island.
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
Diane Cowan photographs lobster mating sites, located near the yellow flag, at the conservancy.
Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer
First, he builds a special mating shelter out of rocks. Then, he places piles of clam shells, crab carcasses and other items outside to show off his hunting prowess. If suitably impressed, the female lobster will check out the shelter with her claws before giving the male the sniff test. "He needs to smell good," said Diane Cowan, a lobster scientist. Discovering the mating rituals is just one aspect of lobster research that has kept Cowan busy for 27 years -- many of them at a 6-acre lobster pound, the research lab for The Lobster Conservancy in Friendship.
While most people prefer their lobsters bright red on a plate with lemon and butter, Cowan is one of a dozen researchers in Maine who have devoted their lives to a better understanding of the American lobster, or Homarus americanus, in the wild. Not only have they put Maine on the map for their research, but they are also working to ensure the future of the state's most lucrative fishery.
Even after millions of dollars and decades of study, much about the lobster is unknown, said Carl Wilson, lead lobster scientist at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He is part of a three-member agency team that studies the fishery with the goal of someday being able to better predict its future.
Lobstering generates about $300 million in sales a year and employs 5,800 licensed fishermen who collectively haul about 3 million traps up and down the Maine coast annually. Thousands more work at lobster processing plants, dealerships and seafood restaurants.
"Not only are lobsters interesting, but the fishery is extremely interesting socially and culturally so you get anthropologists, economists and social scientists" involved in the research mix, said Wilson.
For decades, some scientists have been predicting the Maine lobster fishery would collapse from overfishing, but so far that hasn't happened. Populations to the south in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been decimated by a shell disease in the past decade, to the point that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages the fishery, earlier this year recommended a five-year ban on lobstering in that region.
But in Maine, lobster landings have never been stronger, setting a new record last year at 75.6 million pounds. The Maine lobster industry has been managed by the state for more than 100 years and today is one of the most regulated fisheries in the world. Not only are there a finite number of fishing licenses available, but each fisherman is restricted to 800 traps a year. The only lobsters legal to keep are those with carapaces 3.25 to 5 inches wide. Egg-bearing females are off-limits, and conservation-minded fishermen V-notch the tails of other females, which are supposed to be released if they are caught.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission regulates the industry between states, filling a role similar to the New England Fisheries Management Council, which oversees groundfish.
Despite the health of the Maine fishery -- which helped create a glut that drove down prices during the recession -- there is always the worry that the good times will end, which is why much of the lobster research is devoted to creating a more exact method of determining the population size.
This year, a University of Maine School of Marine Sciences team is putting the finishing touches on a more science-based stock assessment model paid for by a $430,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Led by Andrew Thomas, associate director of the marine sciences school, the project uses information such as water temperatures, currents and winds to predict numbers of lobster larvae and where they will settle after they hatch, mostly from large egg-bearing females Down East and around Canada's Grand Manan Island.
"There are many pieces to our puzzle," said Thomas.
Another $1.5 million five-year grant from the National Science Foundation is financing a project by scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, University of Southern Maine in Portland, Bowdoin College in Brunswick and the University of Maine to better understand the interactions between herring, lobster and groundfish. As part of the research, University of Maine graduate student Marissa McMahan is spending her summer watching the behavior of lobsters when codfish, which feed on lobster, enter their pound.
"They stop moving around as much. They stay in one space, and that limits the amount of foraging and food they can take in," said McMahan.
Her work could ultimately prove the theory that it was the collapse of the cod population in the 1970s from overfishing that triggered the surge in the Maine lobster population.
"There looks to be some sort of connection," said McMahan, who grew up in Georgetown in a lobstering family.
The worry for lobstermen will then become, what happens if the cod stocks return to pre-1970s levels, she said.
Some of the research now taking place is more promotional than scientific. The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, which is funded by the lobster industry, is working with Wind Reef Group LLC, a new company that has developed concrete mooring anchors that double as lobster shelters. The first one is due to be tested off Bar Harbor later this month.
The institute is also backing efforts at the University of Maine Department of Food Sciences to create a lobster sausage, similar to beef jerky, from the leftover meat that now goes to waste after commercial processing.
"We think it will be more suitable for Asian palates," said Robert Bayer, institute executive director.
A MATTER OF MONEY
Finding enough funding to keep the research afloat is always a struggle, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association in Kennebunk.
She said many management questions about lobsters remain unanswered because of a lack of money.
"Right now, one of the more perplexing (questions) is how old are lobsters," she said.
McCarron said scientists have a difficult time determining age because a lobster's size depends on water temperature, not maturity.
"The aging stuff is the next big egg that needs to be cracked in order to step ahead," McCarron said.
Meanwhile, Cowan, whose nonprofit conservancy depends on small grants and donations, has started a new project this summer looking more closely into the social behavior of lobsters, which she says have been unfairly cast as solitary, cannibalistic creatures.
"We think that is an artifice of them being put in confined conditions and putting lobsters that don't want to be put together, together," she said.
This year, she is only allowing lobsters into her research pound that wind up there naturally, rather than accepting donated lobsters from many locations. She will watch what happens.
Cowan said despite all her studies, at the end of the day, she retains a healthy appetite for lobsters.
"I would never eat a known individual, but I am, after all, a predator," she said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: