Archive for Sunday, August 15, 2004

One-time fisherman makes book out of lobster love

August 15, 2004

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— A male lobster lurks, raising its claws in its best alpha flex while the object of its desires strikes a coquettish and cowering pose on craggy rocks at the bottom of the Atlantic.

It's lobster love, the subject of a one-time sternman's new book, "The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean."

Trevor Corson, a Boston native, spent two years on Little Cranberry Island, working as a hand on the lobster boat Double Trouble in the Gulf of Maine and witnessing firsthand the contentious topic of lobster conservation and what it takes, on both sides of the surf, to ensure a future.

"We didn't know anything about these animals. And look at what they were doing down there," said Corson, who maintains a boyish excitement about the research fueling his book. "Anytime you learn about animal behavior, it's always an interesting reflection on human life."

In passages befitting a beach scene in a steamy romance novel, Corson writes about the rough-and-tumble affair as male lobsters vie both for supremacy and the attention of females who only come calling when the male arrives.

Lobster procreation is dictated by the elusive laws of the wild, but it has long fascinated and bewildered scientists. Aristotle, who wrote "The History of Animals," was enchanted by the logistics of the underwater boudoir; many lobstermen are left in the dark when it comes to intricacies of lobsters.

In a narrative that pairs gruff lobstermen with scientists enthralled more by millennia than a moment, Corson's book attempts to put lobsters on the table for all to see. The book even offers a parallel between lobsters and lobstermen, who often live in coastal villages where female fishermen are hard to come by.

Story with legs

The similarity to underwater lobster communities still amuses Corson long after leaving the profession.

Trevor Corson, author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters: How
Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of our
Favorite Crustacean," poses along the waterfront in Portland,
Maine. Corson spent two years working on a lobster boat in the Gulf
of Maine as part of his research for the book.

Trevor Corson, author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of our Favorite Crustacean," poses along the waterfront in Portland, Maine. Corson spent two years working on a lobster boat in the Gulf of Maine as part of his research for the book.

"There was a sense on this little island that these lobstermen had some gender ratio issues, some jockeying for mates," said Corson, who works as a freelance journalist.

Who would have thought lobsters were such passionate lovers?

"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," Corson writes. "He began nibbling it just a few minutes after dismounting -- the lobster equivalent, perhaps, of edible underwear."

Corson spent childhood summers on Little Cranberry before living in a Buddhist temple outside Tokyo. The book was born years later when he returned to the island, looking for work.

On the sea, Corson saw there was a story, one with literal legs.

While the book's comparison of scientific discoveries of lobster courtship and the social dynamics of Maine's fishing villages was intentional, Corson said the story is really about the future of a centuries-old industry.

Sex lives of lobsters

The future of Maine's lobstermen has long been debated as fishermen and scientists faced each other in heated discourse over the proper and most efficient methods to ensure lobster will never be overfished and endangered.

That future is essential to the livelihood of Bruce Fernald and about 7,000 other Maine lobstermen. An image of Fernald at sea opens Corson's book, and his relationship with his wife is paired in most chapters with discoveries of why lobsters behave the way they do.

"Have I read the book? I lived it," Fernald said with a hardy guffaw. "Not that my love life is going to spice it up, but it added a personal touch. Fishermen and lobsters. It all just sort of goes hand in hand."

Fernald said it made sense to pair lobstermen with scientists while delving into the secrets of the deep. Scientists and lobstermen, often together and through daily interaction, are slowly understanding the intricacies of lobsters. Regulations have been adopted throughout New England to ensure that egg-bearing females and larger males, those most likely to be chosen as mates, don't wind up on a dinner plate.

Notches are even cut in the tails of females to let other lobstermen know to throw them back to the deep. After all, the sex lives of lobsters are important to lobstermen, said Patrice Farrey of the Maine Lobstermen's Assn.

"The folks he writes about rely on the resource for their living. They have a good understanding of that, and they've long believed in protecting lobsters for future generations," she said. "They need to do what they need to do."

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