Sustaining a thriving lobster fishery through science and community.
Big On Lobster
With the help of fishermen (and large crustaceans), a Maine scientist seeks a link between inshore and offshore populations.
- by Holly Parker -
Diane Cowan paddles her canoe to the lobster pound's shore as the dull hum of a diesel engine grows to a deep-throated rumble. As Cowan drags the canoe up into the high grass that surrounds her home/laboratory on Friendship Long Island, Maine, Henry Thompson brings the lobster boat Ashbri alongside the trap-laden pier and unloads a special prize for the lobster biologist. Even in Thompson's large, callused hands, the lobster looks impressive, its crusher claw the size of a heavyweight boxer's fist.
"I weighed this one; 5 pounds," Thompson grins as Cowan heaves the lobster into her arms.
Founder of The Lobster Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that studies the behavior patterns of one of the Northeast's most prized catches, Cowan has created a niche for herself and her work on this small, midcoast island. By studying the reproductive behavior of large, offshore lobsters, Cowan hopes to gain an understanding of how these creatures contribute to the inshore, fishable lobster population.
By working directly with local fishermen and distancing herself from regulatory agencies, she bridges the formidable gap between the industry and science and creates a pattern of commonsense conservation based on solid biology and local knowledge.
Cowan walks quickly to the pound docks and places her new subject on the bleached wood. She soaks a towel in cold salt water and covers the sun-subdued lobster. She hauls a cage from the water and extracts an enormous lobster that dwarfs her new prize.
"Well, if this one is 5 pounds, this one must be at least 8," she surmises, placing the giant under the towel next to its new compamon.
With her charges under wraps, Cowan turns to Thompson for some pound advice. Before moving to the mainland, Thompson and his father ran this pound for 31 years.
He tells Cowan his father could predict the weather by observing the lobsters' behavior in the pound. "They get real nasty when an east wind is going to kick up. He knew when it was going to snow when they would start digging themselves into the mud," Thompson says.
Says Cowan, "The fishermen are interested in lobster behavior. They've seen more behavior than most people especially in terms of lobster movements, where the lobsters are. They understand that from what they see in the trap. But there is a lot that they wonder about that they can't see in the trap.
"They can be our eyes out there, and maybe I can be their eyes in here." She gestures to the 6-acre pound behind her.
One of the most important aspects of the positive relationship Cowan has developed with fishermen is their input into her experiments and advice on how she should utilize this unique laboratory. The firsthand knowledge of Thompson and other lobstermen gives Cowan ideas for future experiments.
"Just talking to the fishermen about what they think and what they've seen gives me ideas of what to do in there," Cowan says. "I was talking to them about trap design we want to test an underwater video system. We decided that we should test the video by doing some trapping studies observing lobster behavior around the different trap designs....
"Of course, the fishermen are interested in that and it's a good idea, too."
Cowan views the relationship between science and industry as naturally cooperative. She began working directly with lobstermen during her graduate work in Woods Hole, Mass. After a brief teaching stint at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, she continued the relationship when she subsidized her independent research by working at Cook's Lobster House in Harpswell. She found that by involving the fishermen in her work, she could gain their trust and access to their valuable local knowledge.
Perhaps her most significant discovery was made with the help of the children of Casco Bay fishermen, who inadvertently led her to one of Maine's richest lobster nurseries, Lowell's Cove, in 1992. Cowan was sea kayaking when she spotted some kids on the shore.
"There were these two kids on the beach and they were flipping over rocks. I asked them what they were doing and they said they were playing with the baby lobsters," Cowan recalls.
"The kids who grew up there, the fishermen all knew the lobsters were there, but scientists didn't. So this is one of those places where the people who are living and working on the coast know what's going on, but don't even realize that this information is valuable."
Since the discovery of the Lowell's Cove nursery, Cowan has been tagging the lobsters and studying their growth patterns. While she used to visit the nursery at least 14 times a month, her new work on Friendship Long Island keeps her busy. As a result, The Lobster Conservancy has created a volunteer monitoring program that covers Massachusetts to Maine. Volunteers search out local nurseries and collect data; many of her volunteers are people directly involved with the industry.
"Enid White, who's the wife of Pat White, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, just found her lobsters. I went with her. We found one lobster we looked and looked and looked and only found one. And then she went back on her own a couple of times and she couldn't find any and then just last month she found them. She was so excited," Cowan says.
"By involving community volunteers we get a lot of data and at the same time we're building a conservation ethic in them. They are learning the value of their coves and they'll be more protective of them."
While involving fishermen in the monitoring program or in the collection of oversized lobsters is key, Cowan has also been careful to distance herself from any regulatory agency.
"I don't make the rules and I'm not interested in making the rules. A lot of times when the fishermen don't see eye to eye with the scientists I think a lot of times they actually disagree with the managers. Scientists wouldn't agree with that manager either but they can't say so if they work for that agency."
After a brief stint with the Department of Marine Resources in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1999, Cowan moved to her new "laboratory" on Friendship Long Island. The 3-mile island boasts only three yearround residents: two caretakers and Cowan. Her solar-powered home sits right on the pound; the pier is still used by several area fishermen to store their traps. They always stop by to talk shop with the island's newest resident.
"I guess I'm like them," Cowan says. "I'm independent. I want to do things my way. I don't want anybody telling me what to dobut I'll work within the rules. I have my special permit. I'll live within the laws, but I don't want to make the laws."
Thompson, like other local fishermen involved with the project, carries a special state permit issued to the Lobster Conservancy so that he can bring the oversized lobsters to Cowan, who needs them for the experiments she will begin conducting this fall. By observing the lobsters during the fall shed and egging out, she hopes to answer questions about their social behavior.
Data on large lobsters is scarce. All of Cowan's lobsters will be above the legal limit. She is building shelters in the pound to simulate natural habitat and will observe them from floats and by using scuba gear. She hopes to develop a hypothesis on how these larger, offshore lobsters may contribute to the legal, inshore population.
The lobster population in the Gulf of Maine is thriving now. But sudden fluctuations in population do occur, and establishing more accurate breeding profiles might help explain them. While many believe that the offshore lobsters make a negligible contribution to the inshore population, Cowan suspects otherwise.
Cowan is well on her way to filling her pound with suitable subjects for her observations, thanks to the help of fishermen like Henry Thompson.
"Most of the lobsters in here should be named Henry," she laughs.
The fishermen also donate crabs and fish for the lobsters in a crate Cowan leaves by the pier. Without the fishermen's efforts, Cowan's work would be at a standstill. As it is, she hopes to spend the fall collecting data and the long island winter analyzing the results.
After Thompson stacks some traps, he heaves a bundle of bait fish onto the pier. With a wave, he leaves Cowan to feed the fragrant pollock to her newest charge. As Thompson heads for the mainland, quiet once again descends on Cowan's laboratory home.