The sky is truly falling on many fish species. Nets come up empty, and fish-based economies collapse. But the Maine lobster seems almost immune to such disaster; a growing number of Maine lobstermen continue to haul in a grand 20 million pounds a year of delectable crustacean with no shortage looming on the horizon. Why?Two new books on Maine's lobster The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier by Colin Woodard (Viking, $24.95, 384 pages, ISBN 0670033243) and The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean by Trevor Corson explain how Maine lobstermen voluntarily conserve their lobster population and keep the industry sustainable.
The stereotype of the Maine fisherman as stoic, independent and not easily impressed is apparently well deserved. Both Corson and Woodard suggest that Maine's lobsters benefit from small, traditional, often ancient, fishing communities that jealously guard their resource. Though anyone can theoretically obtain a license to fish for lobster in Maine, the pros protect their harbors from interlopers, snubbing neophytes with no ancestral ties to the community, and even vandalizing their traps. Maine lobstermen have also protected their lobster population by making the breeding female lobster almost sacred. Both Woodard and Corson laud the lobstermen's practice of "V-notching" egg-bearing females punching a small hole in their tail fins before releasing them back into the ocean. Notching is code for "Cherished breeder not for sale." Lobstermen have agreed among themselves to throw back the V-notched lobsters even when they are eggless. Maine's lobstering community also tosses back outsized male lobsters a practice unique among fishing industries. In the inimitable words of Trevor Corson: "by throwing back any lobster with a carapace over five inches, the lobstermen were populating a sort of sex resort for retirees, open to both male studs and experienced females."Undersea sexCorson is one of those rare writers who can make the reproductive systems of lower life forms seem positively racy. Even readers with only a passing interest in marine ecosystems will find the chapter "Sex, Sizes, and Videotape," which chronicles the fascinating mating habits of lobsters, a riveting page turner. Corson's secret is to suggest human analogs for lobster behaviors without anthropomorphizing too flagrantly. Corson also keeps his pages interesting to a wide range of readers by drifting back and forth between the sex lives of lobsters and those of lobstermen like Bruce Fernald, whose romance and marriage to Barb Shirey blossoms between scientific studies.
Corson also aptly traces the sometimes adversarial, but often collaborative relationship between lobstermen and scientists. Bob Steneck, who also appears prominently in Woodard's book, emerges as the hero of this conflict. Steneck is a renegade scientist who believes in actually getting out in the water and counting lobsters before making predictions. His practical field approach which involves studying lobsters in their natural setting vindicates the conservation practices of Maine's lobstermen and helps bridge the gap between fishing and science.
Woodard writes ambitiously about the whole state of Maine and its history, starting with its pre-Pilgrim inhabitation by Europeans. Throughout his book, he keeps an eye on lobstering, the industry that has been the backbone of Maine's economy, the ever-present default option as other industries, such as ice and granite, failed. Woodard reports not only on the conflict between lobstermen and government scientists, but also on the friction between ancient lobster communities and encroaching suburbia what he calls the "Massification" of southern Maine, i.e. the tendency of Boston professionals to sprawl northward, driving lobstermen out of their ancestral homes with tax increases, beach access restrictions and noise ordinances. Woodard's chapter, "The Triumph of the Commons," is, itself, a triumph. Science has declared that, by and large, shared natural resources are doomed to overharvesting, but Woodard shows how Maine's lobster community has defied that trend through religious self-regulation. Woodard takes as his focal point the beautiful and largely undeveloped Monhegan Island. On Monhegan, lobstermen have taken resource conservation a quantum step further: they only fish for lobsters December through June. Monhegan is not only a model of conservation; for Woodard, it is also a symbol of Maine and lobstering culture at its very best. Monhegan, he writes, is "an ancient, self-governing village, essentially classless and car-less, whose homes, sheds, and footpaths appear to have thrust themselves out of the wild and arrestingly beautiful landscape. . . . [B]eing immersed in it pulls at something deep within our civic being, a hint of a simpler, perhaps nobler world that might have been, but can never be again."