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The Secret Life of Lobsters

Trevor Corson

How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

(HarperCollins)

Things Done in Deep, Dark Places

Not so long ago, lobster was considered a kind of junk food suitable only for swine, servants and prisoners. Then canning came along and after that, flash freezing and lobster became the proper fare of every Tom, Dick and Harry with money. Yuppie food, in other words.


Critters that become food fads generally suffer an unhappy ending. Yuppie feeding frenzies have driven other species to the brink of extinction. Might that be the lobster’s fate? It would seem so. Or at least that’s what government scientists have thought—and with good reason. Lobsters take about seven years to grow to a harvestable size and that’s about when they start breeding. It would seem apparent that few female lobsters can be expected to survive long enough to reproduce. Other desirable critters with this type of population growth pattern and reproduction strategy have to be very carefully regulated or they are doomed. Consequently, government scientists have long predicted a population collapse and the demise of the lobster fishing industry. Relish your next lobster, as it may well be your last.


The trouble is there’s nothing apparent about the life of the lobster. They dislike each other so much it’s a wonder they ever manage to mate, and they are governed in part by thigmotaxis and in part by negative phototaxis. Thigmotaxis means they aren’t comfortable unless their bodies are touching something. Negative phototaxis means they like it dark. They are happiest in deep, dark places, and they are most active at night. These predilections make them highly unsuitable research subjects. In their dealings with scientist, lobsters just aren’t very cooperative.


Consequently, until recently we’ve assumed a lot about lobster behavior without ever observing it in practice. Even the critters’ reproductive anatomy, much less their methodology, has been unclear. You might expect that of an animal that has two penises.


Sorting out the lobster’s sex life is more than an exercise in theoretical biology. While government scientists have been making dire predictions about the future of the lobster fishery and consequently regulating it to near death, lobster fishermen simply haven’t seen many indications of the impending population collapse. The resulting difference of opinion can’t be sorted out, however, until a lot more is known about the sex life of the lobster and other aspects of its ecology and ethology as well.


Corson summarizes in The Secret Life of Lobsters what has been learned about lobsters in recent years, and that is a fascinating story. A dominant male lobster bullies everything in the neighborhood, male and female alike, until a brave female intrudes herself into this ogre’s lair. She sooths him, he falls in love which triggers her molt, they mate, she hangs around guarded by him until her new carapace hardens. Then she abandons him and the process starts over again until the ogre’s been with every female in the neighborhood. Throughout all this, the water is lousy with pheromones.


This is the simple version of the story. It has many fascinating turns and twists. What about those guys who are bullied and do without female companionship? Is there a dominance hierarchy that determines the order in which females approach the male. Who are those monsters in really deep water, beyond the range of the fishermen, who are as big as grizzly bears?


But as fascinating as the lobster’s life is, it as nothing in comparison with the lives of the scientists who have revealed it. These are eccentric and independent men and women who have an obsession. Some seem to have been born with a lobster fixation (possibly a kind of genetic defect) while others have stumbled into the odd world of the lobster by accident. But if they are anything, they are an innovative lot. They’d have to be, to unravel the secrets of a lobster’s life. Corson’s book, then, is about lobsters and scientists and scientific problem-solving.


An odd, symbiotic relationship has developed between these eccentric, often renegade scientists and the eccentric, often renegade men and women who make their living from the lobsters. Some fisherpersons, and in this case the gender-free language is entirely appropriate, have inherited their vocation through generations of lobster fishing. They can’t help it, they know no better. Others are new arrivals, beer-drinking hippies from respectable families who spent one too many summers on the beach. They know what they’re getting into. They have nobody to blame but themselves. And this is the other thing Corson’s book is about, a fundamental ethnography of a lobster fishing community.


There is yet another theme, and that is rugged individualism. In a world gone mad with corporate culture, frantic yes men and women in pinstriped suits, it is nice to know that there is still a frontier, a place out there where men and women live by their wits, pitting themselves in brain and brawn against the vagaries of nature.


A word of warning. As Corson tells his tale, he introduces enough characters to make a Russian novelist jealous, and as in any good Russian novel, some of those characters are important and some are damned important, but you don’t know which is which for a couple of score pages when you’ve forgotten just who’s who. I found it useful to keep a note pad nearby. There is no bibliography but there is a useful guide to further reading. Corson includes some useful advice about cooking lobsters.


So what about it? Is the lobster population about to crash? Not likely. If we can keep the water free of oil and relatively clean, the factor limiting lobster populations seems to be the number of dark crevices on the bottom. So the population is sustainable and can even be expanded by increasing the bottom’s lobster housing units. Gosh, for once we can have our lobster and eat it too.

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