Home World ClassroomEnvironmental Lobstering in Maine
Lobstering in Maine

Iowa is a LONG way from the ocean. I mean it’s really, really far.

One of the things I love about living in New England is the opportunity to go to the beach for the day. That and the temperature regulation. I still chuckle when I hear someone in Boston complain about how hot or cold the weather is, or how quickly the weather changes. Nope. Sorry.

I’m a fish out of water, though, and the ocean calls to me. I love the sound. And the smell. And the boats in the harbor. But in many ways the ocean is still foreign to me.

Which is why I was so flippin’ excited when our friends Max and Lynnie (who live on a sailboat!) asked if we wanted to visit them in Maine and go lobstering. Uh, yeah!

I knew absolutely nothing about lobstering. Or lobsters. Luckily, our fabulous guides PJ and Jennifer were wonderful teachers, patiently explaining what we were doing and why.  I may not know how to lobster, but this Iowa girl isn’t afraid to get dirty!

Our job for the day was to help PJ pull his ten traps for the winter. So we put on our waders, hopped onto the whaler, and set off into the harbor to the buoys marking his traps.

Lobster Life

Lobsters live in eelgrass and rocks on the ocean floor.  They eat a variety of animals, like crabs, clams, mussels, starfish, and even small fish, and “chew” their food with teeth in their stomach. Like other arthropods, their hard exoskeleton is a double-edged sword, as it protects them from predators but has to be shed for them to grow. Young lobsters molt up to 25 times before they’re seven or eight years old, approximately the age they can be legally harvested. Like most crustaceans, lobsters have indeterminate growth, meaning they will continue to grow until they die. Lobsters can live a long time, up to 100 years, and grow quite large…the largest lobster ever caught weighed over 44 pounds and was over 3.5 feet long!

Of the six lobsters we trapped, five of them had to be released. In order to ensure a sustainable lobster fishery, Maine’s lobstermen self-regulate. Not only are there limits to the number of traps and licenses issued, all traps have to have escape hatches for small lobsters. To be a keeper, a trapped lobster must meet minimum size restrictions, and four of our lobsters were too small.  Another lobster was a breeding female, so before releasing her we notched her tail, ensuring her a lifetime of freedom. One of the interesting things I learned that day was how to sex a lobster: The swimmerets on females are soft and feathery, while on males they are hard.

Lobsters practice serial monogamy, as females take turns having “flings” with males. When a female lobster is ready to mate, she releases pheromones into the water around a male stud’s cave to excite him. She then molts, and the male deposits sperm packets into her receptacles.  As she is vulnerable to predators, she “shacks up” with the male in his cave for protection. Once her shell has hardened a couple of weeks later, another female gets her turn.

killing European green crab lobster trap

Killing a green crab

But it’s not over. The female can store sperm for up to 15 months. When she releases her eggs they pass by the sperm and are fertilized. The 5,000 to 10,000 eggs attach under her tail, and stay there until they hatch over ten months later. The vast majority of juveniles don’t survive to reach harvestable age, as they are food for dozens of other marine species.

Threats to Lobsters

One insidious creature that kept popping up in our traps was the European green crab. Introduced in the 1800s in the ballast water of ships, this invasive species is highly adaptable, has extremely high rates of reproduction and has no natural predators in our waters. This invasive species causes damage in many ways. It tears up eelgrass looking for food, turning seagrass beds to mudflats, increasing erosion, and reducing habitat for other marine animals. These crabs will eat almost anything, including commercially important bivalves like soft shell clams, oysters, and scallops. Water quality is even affected, as eelgrass and bivalves help to filter water pollutants.

Indeed, while Maine’s lobstermen should be commended for their sustainability efforts, some threats to lobsters, like climate change, may be out of their control. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. Lobsters, preferring cool waters, have  been marching steadily northward for the past 50 years, and will likely continue to do so, putting the health of the fishery and the livelihoods of the people who depend on them at risk.

Warming ocean temperatures push lobster populations north (Image credit: NOAA Climate.gov via Rutgers University/OceanAdapt)

A Great Ending to a Wonderful Day
lobstering lobster dinner steamed

Lobster dinner!

As we only caught one lobster, PJ generously donated four from the previous day for our dinner. Max and Lynnie steamed the lobsters and showed Hubby and me how to eat more than just the tail and claw. The meat was so sweet I didn’t even need to use butter and lemon. Soon we were sucking out the legs like old pros. Truly a trap to table dinner!

Our day lobstering was spectacular. Honestly, it couldn’t have been better. A beautiful fall day in Maine, out on the ocean, with wonderful friends, learning about lobsters, and a lobster dinner. A truly memorable New England experience.

A special thank you to Max and Lynnie, who not only welcomed us into their beautiful home, but who are also the reason I started this blog. Thank you for being so inspirational and so supportive. And thank you to PJ and Jennifer for a world-class day!

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2 comments

Eran November 2, 2017 - 8:40 pm

I’m so glad to see a new post! I thought, “wow, she explained that science really well.” Then I remembered your occupation and thought, “wow, can she be MY biology teacher?” Anyway, my favorite line was: “One of the interesting things I learned that day was how to sex a lobster.” Had me laughing for several minutes.

notiniowaanymore November 3, 2017 - 8:20 am

Thanks for the awesome comment! I liked letting my inner biologist out. I might have to do that more in future posts!

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