Q&A: The Lobster Expert
Virginia M. Wright chats with Diane Cowan, founder of the Lobster Conservancy.
Excerpted from The Maine Lobster Book, by Virginia M. Wright, Down East Books, Camden, Maine; hardcover; 114 pages; $14.95.
Of the dozen or so researchers who study lobsters in Maine, Diane Cowan follows the most unconventional path. By founding The Lobster Conservancy (TLC) in 1996, she has created a life that allows her to pursue her passion on her own terms. Her research lab is a six-acre lobster pound in Friendship, where she frequently dons scuba gear and spends hours watching and photographing its inhabitants. TLC engages dozens of residents in coastal communities from Massachusetts to Down East Maine in monitoring baby lobsters that can be found hiding under rocks on beaches during the lowest astronomical tides. Cowan and her volunteers spend several days each month, no matter the hour or the temperature, counting, measuring, and tagging the little crustaceans.
How did you become interested in lobster nurseries?
I moved to Maine in August of 1992 to take a two-year teaching position at Bates College. After unpacking my boxes, my friend and I took a drive to the coast, and we ended up at Lowell Cove in Harpswell. There were two little boys on the shore, flipping rocks. We asked, “Hey, what are you guys doing?” They said, “We’re playing with the baby lobsters.” I was, like, “Whoa!” When I was in graduate school, the big question was, where do the little lobsters that start out as larvae in the open water, settle? It turns out the local people knew, but the scientists didn’t.
So you kept going back?
Yes. I involved my students at Bates in a research project counting lobsters. When that position ended, I couldn’t go work for someone else because I couldn’t leave my lobsters! So I moved to Harpswell and got a job at Cook’s Lobster House. I gave them the tide schedule for the whole year and said, “These are the days I need off.”
My first volunteers were the people of Harpswell — lobstermen, their wives, and kids, and the wait staff at Cook’s. They learned how to measure lobsters, how to tell males from females, the differences between lobsters that are healthy and those that aren’t. They learned how science looks at what they knew was there all the time. It is one thing to know the lobsters are there and another to take counts and have numbers that mean something.
My whole life changed. All my life’s decisions are ruled by the tides, which is how I eventually ended up in Friendship. I’ve spent one week out of every month of my life with these babies for the past twenty years, and I am still amazed. I see something new every month.
What do you hope to see happen as a result of your research?
We’d like to see the lobster nurseries protected at the town level. Harpswell has done some things — it adopted an ordinance preventing aerial spraying for pesticides around lobster nurseries. [Some insecticides inhibit the production of chitin, a major component of lobster shells.]
How big are the lobsters that you find?
The smallest ones we find are three-quarters of an inch long. They’re so adorable. They’re unbelievably cute. I think that’s why the volunteers do this.
How do you put an identification tag on a lobster that small?
The tags are a little piece of wire, about one millimeter long and one-quarter millimeter in diameter. They look like a grain of sand. I have a hypodermic needle that has a plunger in it. I pick up the wire, put it in the needle, and then stick the tag into the lobster’s foot — one of the legs behind the big claws that have the little pincers. The tag has a number on it that you can read under the microscope so you can tell who that lobster is. Of course, you have to get the tag back, so when I catch a lobster, I run it past a detector that beeps if there is a tag. I dissect the tag out, put it in a vial, then put a new tag in the lobster. The lobster never leaves the field. That’s important, especially if you want to keep track of the same individual over time.
What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned?
Lobsters have this reputation as being solitary cannibals. That’s because we usually encounter them in traps or tanks, and if you confine them, they do eat each other. But in nature, I’ve seen no evidence of this. In fact, the more I watch them, the more I am amazed at the complexity of their social structure and how they live together. I’ve found up to thirteen of my babies under one rock — usually they’re the smaller ones who are less than a year old, the ones about three-quarters of an inch to an inch long. They are more likely to be with other lobsters than they are to be alone. The next bigger ones are found with other lobsters about half the time. Then as they get bigger, the more you are apt to find them alone.
I used to put lobsters in my pound, and they’d fight — they didn’t want to be with each other. But now I just let them walk in and out when they want, so whoever is there wants to be there. There’s typically one dominant male, a bunch of females, and a bunch of babies of different sizes, all living in incredibly high density, and they work out who’s who, what’s what, and they aren’t killing each other.
You seem to have a real affection for them.
I love them, and I know them as individuals. But I do eat lobsters — I just don’t eat the individuals that I know! I buy my lobsters at the wharf from the lobstermen. Protect lobsters just for the sake of lobsters? No. The scientists and the fishermen want the same things: We want plenty of lobsters in our bellies tonight and plenty to catch tomorrow.
Read More: The Complicated Mating Rituals of Lobster