The Steamy Side Of Lobsters

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Maine lobstermen like Bruce Fernald have been hauling lobsters from these waters for hundreds of years, setting their traps, and pulling up the secrets of the sea.

But when he took writer Trevor Corson onboard as sternman, he found out how much he didn't know.

"Reading Trevor's book was a real eye opener," says Fernald.

For hot stuff, you can pick up a Harlequin romance, all fiction, or you can read Corson's book, "The Secret Life of Lobsters," all fact!

"It just never occurred to me that while I'm hauling in these traps, catching and handling all these lobsters, what interesting social lives and interesting sex lives they have down there," says Corson. "It gets pretty steamy."

Steamy is a word that you might expect to use to talk about cooking lobsters, but we're not talking about that kind of steam.

Corson writes: "Again, the male responded immediately to the soft female scent, sniffing with his antenules, he closed and lowered his claws, stood on tiptoe, approached the female and circled her."

"I learned a lot more about shall we say the romantic side of lobster life than I had ever imagined there was to know," says Corson.

The romantic side of lobster life is scientist Diane Cowan's passion.

"I am just fascinated by this animal, and I have been for most of my life," she says.

She's the Jane Goodall of lobsters, obsessed with crustacean science ever since she wrote a paper on it in ninth grade.

Diane lives on an island off the coast of Friendship, Maine, with her dog Bear and 300 lobsters who have set up housekeeping in an old lobster pound, where she can study their courtship rituals at close range.

"They do court. The female is the choosy sex. She's looking for a male," she says. "The guy next door might be good enough…or she might be looking down the street for someone better."

"The guys set up house for the females," she continues. "He has to have a nice place if she's going to move in with him."

And if all this sounds a little too metero-sexual, there is a dark side. In fact, the game of lobster love can be downright cruel.

"Male lobsters can't stop fighting. They have to fight to see whose in charge of the territory," says Corson.

Scientists have found out that the females wait in turn to all mate with that one dominant male, so that once he's proven he's the bully of the neighborhood, they come calling.

But beneath that tough guy exterior, that hard shell, there is a tender side. Which inspires the female to shed her shell. Really!

"When he mates with her, the male has to be gentle since she's so soft, he has to cradle her in his legs and hold her up off the bottom so he doesn't crush her," says Cowen. "It does sound surprisingly almost human. Sometimes I describe this to people and it invariably brings up some bar scene they saw in Manhattan the other night or something."

In fact, up and down the coast of Maine, folks are uncovering more and more about the secret lives of lobsters.

Every month, at low tide, volunteers gather to count the baby lobsters that hide underneath the rocks, recording vital statistics to send to Diane Cowan and the folks at the Lobster Conservancy.

"Lobsters live for maybe 70 to 100 years. They have a very long childhood," says Cowan. "They also have something that is like adolescence - they go through something like puberty.... If you are going to live that many years... Then maybe that's when you develop complex social behaviors."

While cod and haddock have all but disappeared from these waters, endangered by overfishing, and lobsters further south are in trouble, threatened by disease, here in Maine, there's a lobster boom. And nobody's sure exactly why.

"For the last ten or fifteen years…we've been working closer and closer with scientists I think we respect them, and they respect us," says Fernald. "We've been doing so much conservation efforts it's paying off big time."

Fernald the lobsterman thinks the boom is because of the lobstermen themselves. They throw back small lobsters and big lobsters, and put a V-notch in the tail of breeding females that marks them as illegal to sell.

Brzezinski can't help but ask the lobster researchers, "Can you eat them, knowing what you know?"

"This may sound crazy," responds Corson, "I actually feel like going ahead and eating a lobster after knowing about it. It is a little bit like reconnecting with that web of life."

Cowan agrees, with one exception. "I wouldn't eat one I knew," she says. "I don't know, I can't explain it - but I'd only eat strange lobsters."