Sustaining a thriving lobster fishery through science and community.
Islands Magazine, March 2001
The Lobster Lady
When it comes to these crustaceans, Diane Cowan has a calling.
By Janis Frawley-Holler
SCIENTISTS REFER TO DIANE CONVAN AS the "Jane Goodall of Lobsters"; East Coast lobstermen think of her as the "Lobster Doc."
"She knows things about lobsters that no one else knows," says 8O-year-old lobsterman Alvin Rackliff. "She's thorough, she works like the devil, and she has dedicated her life to them."
So how did a schoolgirl froom Michigan grow up to become Maine's leading lobster Lady?
"My ninth-grade teacher assigned a research paper," she says. "I had always loved flipping through my parents' books to look at the most beautiful, most exotic marine creatures I could find. But that time I came across pictures of lobsters and said, 'That's it!'"
What caught her attention while researching her project was a paper about lobsters and communicator chemicals called pheromones.
"It hooked me," she says. "That was the '70s, when people were concerned about oil spills and when Jacques Cousteau, my hero, had filmed spiny lobsters walking in single file across the bottom of the sea. From that I reached the absurd conclusion that all lobsters were in grave danger - that they'd all march single file into a huge oil spill, thinking it smelled like their pheromones."
And so the unfounded worry of a ninth grader gave birth to a journey fueled by passion and seemingly guided by the Big Lobster in the Sky.
"In retrospect, it really does seem that all paths led to where I am today," Cowan says. "But I couldn't tell along the way."
Today Cowan, a petite 40-year-old with a Ph.D. and that nature-girl look - hair lightened by long hours outdoors, little if any makeup, and piercing gray-blue eyes lives a simple, fulfilled life on the little lobster paradise of Maine's Friendship Long Island. It's headquarters for the Life Study Center of the Lobster Conservancy, which Cowan founded. Covered with spruce trees and, in summer, brilliantly colored wildflowers, the property includes three lobster pounds (enclosed, dammed-offcoves for storing live lobsters) and a house where Cowan resides while doing her work as head scientist and chief tour giver. Most important, it enables her to live close to her beloved homards.
With no rumling water in winter, Cowan rises at 4 A.M., gathers wood for heat, fetches water, and checks E-mail on her laptop. In summer she lunches on huge salads of freshpicked greens, nasturtiums, and other veggies from her four food gardens, accompanied by lobster stew.
"I don t eat my lobsters though,'' she says. "Only strangers."
She leaves the island "only when I have to," in good weather rowing to the mainland in the green wooden dory she built when she was studying the behavior of clawed lobsters at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod.
As fate would have it, Jelle Atema, author of the pheromone paper that had inspired Cowan as a ninth grader became her mentor. Under his supervision, she cleaned up an unused 90-foot-long aquarium and filled it with lobsters.
"It was a wonderful time of my life," she says, "sitting up all night watching those lobsters and recording everything they did. The longest stretch was 18 1/2 hours, and it was better than any soap opera. The lives of lobsters are incredible."
Those long nights produced the first-ever documentation of lobster courtship and mating behaviors.
After earning her doctorate Cowan took a temporary teaching position at Maine's Bates College, some 40 miles inland. In need of an exciting project for her marine biology students, she went exploring on the coast. On a whim she turned down Lowells Cove Road and came upon two little boys by the shoreline. When she asked what they were doing, they said, "Playing with baby lobsters."
"What? Baby lobsters on the beach? What is this?" Cowan remembers thinking. "I ran around with them for hours. The babies were adorable 1/2 to 3/4-inch miniature lobsters, except that the tips of their claws were white, and their tails had white speckles.
"It was unbelievable. I had recently attended a conference where it was concluded that we didn't know enough about the early life of lobsters. And here I had just found a natural lobster nursery! The funny thing was that all the kids around Maine's coast knew where those lobster nurseries were, but scientists didn't have a clue. Now all I had to do was pick up the babies, measure and tag them, and put them right back without taking them out of their habitat."
Cowan had happened upon the most significant discovery of her career. And after it, she recalls, "I just couldn't leave the baby lobsters I was tracking."
So when the teaching position ended, she waited tables at a lobster restaurant at night to sustain the research she conducted during the day, and occasionally worked as a boatbuilder or as a sternman on a lobster boat, which she remembers as "heavy, hard work." Eventually she became involved in town government, which made it easy to find volunteers to help with her baby lobster study.
"Today 10,000 baby lobsters have been tagged at 24 sites, from Isle au Haut, Maine, to Manomet, Massachusetts," she says.
And the work continues, since, although the Maine lobster fishery is fairly healthy, it needs to be monitored and managed effectively to remain so in the future. The Lobster Conservancy brings scientists, lobstermen, conservationists, and local politicians together to see that vision through.
"Diane is going to be able to tell us what's going on with the lobsters," says Bob Waddle, lobster retailer and former selectman. "If there's going to be trouble in six or seven years, she'll be able to warn us about it."
And so Cowan goes about her business at the six-acre lobster pound on the island. It took her two years to set up the facility - building lobster shelters, testing identification marks, inventing an internal tag (since lobsters shed their shells an external tag would be useless), and so forth. Cowan is happy about the progress she's made.
"Now that the conservancy has a life of its own, I'm able to dedicate my life to my work," she says. "My long-term goal is to ensure the health and productivity of the fishery; a lot of people are dependent on it. I also hope kids learn from me that you can follow your dream, that you can do what you really want to in this life - even if its studying lobsters."
Janis Frawley-Holler is a freelance writer and the travel editor of Sarasota magazine. She makes her home in Longboat Key, Florida.