Haute Pasture recently visited the North Shore of Massachusetts. As we strolled through Gloucester, stacks of lobster traps caught our attention and made us wonder: is lobster farming sustainable? Is it humane? And while we’re at it, is boiling a live lobster cruel?
Lobster traps in Gloucester, Mass.
First, the boiling: According to eHow, lobsters have small brains and no central nervous systems, so they don’t have time for their brains to register pain before the water kills them. WiseGeek disagrees, based on the visible distress shown by struggling lobsters as they die in the pot. They suggest freezing a lobster for 15 minutes, so slow its nervous system, chopping it in half to kill it quickly, and then boiling it. Other humane lobster-killing devices are hitting the market, such as the CrustaStun, in the UK, which electrocutes lobsters; and a giant pressure-cooker-type machine used by Shucks Maine Lobster.
Is the farming process humane? The trapping process is easy on the animals: metal boxes sit on the seafloor with bait inside. The lobsters crawl in, have a snack, and are free to crawl out again. Only if they happen to be in the trap when it’s pulled to the surface are they caught. Because lobsters are usually purchased by the customer alive, farmers and middlemen are incented to treat the creatures well once they are harvested. One might think keeping lobsters in tanks at stores and restaurants is cruel, but this article reports that studies at the Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod suggest that the close quarters dull their sense of smell, which relaxes them, and the cold water in the tanks slows their metabolism, reducing their stress.
Is lobster farming sustainable? The answer seems to be yes. Massachusetts has a program called Massachusetts Lobster Fishing The Right Way, which educates the public on the use of sinking groundlines on lobster traps rather than surface lines, which can entangle whales. Massachusetts is the first state to require the use of sinking lines connecting lobster traps along the seafloor, and over 3,000 miles of floating rope has been removed from state waters by lobstermen. Other state regulations include trap vents to allow undersized lobsters to escape, minimum and maximum size requirements, and the required release of egg-bearing females.
Maine regulations are similar to Massachusetts’, with additional protections for breeding females. If a female with eggs is caught, her tail is notched before being returned to the water, marking her for life as an unharvestable breeder. If a female’s eggs are discovered after she is caught, the Lobster Seed Fund buys her from the fisherman to return her to the sea. The Fund is supported by lobster fishing license fees. Maine lobster fisheries are under consideration by the Marine Stewardship Council in London for sustainability certification.
Lobster fisheries are one of the only reliable sources of sustainably-farmed seafood today. If you purchase a Maine or Massachusetts lobster and kill it yourself in a humane way, you are making a responsible, and delicious, seafood choice.