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Rough Life: A Lobster’s Tale

Only the tail shell, head and body remain. All the small appendages and tail meat are gone. The lobster’s end was gruesome: being eaten alive by a creature as heartless and hungry as itself, a bigger lobster. Absence of food triggers a fierce struggle between trapped and hungry animals. Typically, the larger creature prevails. Tautaug (blackfish) feed on lobsters and will pursue them into lobster traps, including mine. But the twisted body I’m viewing is definitely the result of lobster-on-lobster violence. No re-match for the de-clawed little guy as his life is
forfeited and became the aggressor’s meal. With adequate time, most lobsters successfully escape the “rectangle of death” but not this little guy. His opponent attacked, ate, and left. If it was a female protecting eggs, the smaller lobster had no chance.

Pairs may be in mid-battle as the trap clears the water. Even as I’m removing one lobster, another lobster will lock claws with it. Some “shorts” continue living only because I’ve returned smaller animals to the ocean and kept larger ones. I’ve rescued scup, Jonah crabs, hermit
crabs, and conch from lobsters who all responded to the same dinner bell. When even a hard shell doesn’t protect a crab or snail, human intervention spares them. The story line is typically: lots of competition for food evolving into inter-species battles when the free lunch dwindles.

From personal observation, lobsters resort to their own species only when other food sources are depleted. Missing body parts offer ample evidence of the ongoing underwater battle. Lobster claws make an occasional appearance, separate from the lobsters who are missing
those parts. Sometimes the trap is the location of the violence and sometimes it is a false and temporary refuge.

Each mature female produces thousands of eggs and carries them on the underside of her wide tail for almost a year. How fiercely those mamas battle all manner of predators, including me. Each one repeatedly attacks my orange-gloved hand with speed and bone-crushing strength until she or I withdraw. One hand diverts while another snags her by the back, a safe distance from both claws and tail. If a quick inspection reveals eggs, she is gently slipped back into the ocean to continue her important work. Those tasty eggs are a delicacy for every species but few of them fully mature. Tiny yet fully-formed lobsters regularly show up in Tautaug and Black Sea Bass bellies.

Fending off other scavengers and hiding from bigger creatures is a hard life. Dozens of large spider crabs can take over an entire pot blocking lobsters from entering. Crustaceans of all size scamper over, under, and around rocks and boulders in a continuous search for meals. Rather than a full pot of delicious Jonah crabs or blue crabs, my crab fest typically involves inedible spider crabs ranging from 2-9 inches in diameter. I’ll fantasize for about 20 seconds while pulling up an especially heavy pot only to be deflated by the sight of these unpleasant creatures. Removing multiple entangled legs from twisted webbing and prying claws from metal frames is tedious. Even though I’m attempting to release them, I must look like the largest monster they’ve ever seen.

As soon as the pot is re-baited and re-launched, the crabs return to the pots. Five minutes after setting one pot, I decided to relocate it and it already had unwanted dinner guests. Why is it that only crab and not lobsters rush into the freshly-baited pots? Lobster are nocturnal while crabs are active in daylight hours when I’m legally able to handle my gear. After a night of carousing and eating, lobsters back into rocks and crevices, claws extended, to rest. Protecting the rear is a timeless battle technique for all creatures great and small. We meet only when they venture out for food and they select my option.

Despite consistent and considerable effort to catch lobster, the traps often include hermit crabs, clams, mussels, and conch. All are searching for food yet vulnerable. When commercial fish pots are nearby, legal-sized scup (porgy) fish show up in my traps. They become accustomed to the feeding trough we foolish humans regularly provide and go right into the pots. When I don’t need additional lobster bait, the fish I capture are released unharmed along with the ever-present spider crabs.

Losing a single claw isn’t uncommon but puts the animal at a disadvantage. Claws are re-grown over a period of several years with the external shell shedding and re-growing multiple times to accommodate claw growth. I love to see a really tiny claw on one side and a giant claw on the other. A legal lobster is 5-7 years old and has molted and re-grown his shell dozens of times to accommodate growth. Each intact lobster has a longer, thinner pincher claw for speed and a fatter, stronger crusher claw easily capable of breaking a human finger. Either claw may be on either side as “handedness” is equally balanced. I have no idea who is counting them all but there are great State and National organizations dedicated to the survival of this species and the fishermen who make their living harvesting them. I’m a stickler for enforcement of the regulations that protect my favorite source of nautical entertainment and food.

Fully-grown lobsters, missing both claws, appeared over a series of weeks at the same time Tautaug returned to the Connecticut shoreline. But maybe this is evidence of a secret lobster fight club creating culls with one missing claw or pistols with both claws missing. Do the losing animals take refuge in the traps because they seem safe and provide food? Does it matter how these animals arrived absent their natural protection? Maybe not but I ponder that question when injuries are visible. From a practical perspective, culls and pistols provide more meat per pound than intact lobsters. Most of the claw weight is the shell rather than the meat. When choosing lobsters at a fish counter, I suggest buying larger male culls for more meat though intact animals make a more striking presentation. Or specify females if you like roe. A good fish monger will be impressed by your preference and happy to oblige.

A lobster’s entire life is pretty rough from its start as fiercely-protected eggs to finish in a steamy bath with melted butter and a lemon wedge. Never thought I’d become a link in the life and death cycle of this fascinating species but each season provides new experiences. Appreciation of and respect for the animals compels me to share a bit of this adventure. The laborious process of lobstering involves feeding and interacting with diverse creatures but occasionally the result is luscious, tender meat for my family and friends to enjoy. And fishing stories.

Elizabeth SaedeElizabeth Saede is a local author of Lobster Summer. She is also the author of thisismystic.com’s “On the Water” column. Elizabeth can be reached by email at Sunshine06378[at]gmail.com.

  1. grace

    4 September

    WOW. Really great writing!

    • Elizabeth

      15 September

      Thank you, Grace. 🙂

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