The American Lobster (Homarus americanus) is a strange critter, a crustacean that early European settlers were loathe to eat but now considered one of the finest sources of food to come out of the ocean. Like many other animals that end up as seafood, however, our ignorance about their habits and lifecycles have caused some major clashes between government agencies, ecologists, and the lobstermen, and Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters ties together modern and historical conflict with the biology of the animal itself. While the book is by no means technical, I appreciated the way in which Corson told the story of scientific discovery about the lobster (especially how its senses and mating habits) in a chronological fashion, almost inviting the reader into the room while discoveries were being made but not revealing the true answer until it became relevant to the other parts of the story. “Story” might otherwise seem an inappropriate word to use for a non-fiction book, but the book largely reads like a novel and is much more accessible than cut-and-dry facts offered for digestion.
While the lifestyle of lobsters is certainly interesting in and of itself, Corson does us one better and puts it in context, recounting the various clashes between government scientists predicting a crash in lobster numbers and lobstermen who worked with the animals nearly every day. While it may be easy to demonize hunters, farmers, or people who otherwise “utilize” natural resources, these are the very people who are just as concerned with resources that their lives depend on, and not listening to them and their experience is a mistake. Indeed, rather than overexploitation (dwindling stock due to overfishing facing more pressure from more fishermen) like was/is the case with cod, fluxes in lobster population seem to depend more on weater, currents, and patterns out of our control, lobstermen taking advantage of a boon but not laying waste to a fishery either. I had heard about lobster population crashes growing up, but the ones I heard about on the news were in Long Island waters, where pesticides and chemicals apparently decimated the lobster population. While I’m not expert on the matter, Corson does make a convincing case that the Maine lobster fishery is sustainable, and natural fluctuations in the stock will weed out over exploitive and ill-prepared fishermen when the numbers dip every so often from natural causes (whereas “real” lobstermen will be able to continue on and help conserve the animals while harvesting them).
In all Corson’s book is engaging and fun to read, a good primer for anyone who doesn’t know very much about lobsters. While his method of switching between the activities of ecologists and lobstermen might annoy some who like books that continue along with no diversions, Corson makes the science applicable to the debate over the fishery, showing how relatively “obscure” science can be made relevant. In fact, the book does a fairly good job explaining the trials and tribulations of being a scientist, coming up with research, collaborating with other researchers, dealing with government agencies, dealing with the public, etc., and so I would also recommend it to anyone who’s interested in how what goes on in the lab gets applied to the “real world.” In any event, the book would make a great beach read and it’d make a great addition to any summer reading list.
Next up on the reading list; Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (followed by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and an un-edited version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. As much as I love books about evolution, these books are welcome relief from the often stale writing of other authors).