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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lobster Lady

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: Lobsters are just about the biggest part of the fishing industry in Maine, with sales of nearly $200 million last year. But for a long time, nobody really knew where the young lobsters would go once they were hatched. That is, until Diane Cowan came along. Maine Public Radio's Naomi Schalit caught up with the biologist one cold night when she was out flipping rocks at low tide.


SCHALIT: It's dark. It's windy. It's cold. And it takes somebody pretty much obsessed with their work to be out here under these conditions.

COWAN: This happens to be my favorite place on earth. This scatter of rocks right through here. Because this has the highest density of lobsters, juvenile lobsters, anywhere that's been found. So it's a very special place, and I'm hoping we'll find some tonight.


SCHALIT: Conditions here at Lowell's Cove, halfway up the coast of Maine, are perfect for lobster hunting. The extremely low tide has exposed the mud flats and rocks on this beach, and it's those rocks -- well, really what's under those rocks -- that Diane Cowan is after. Dressed in a Harvey suit, a lobsterman's long underwear, the 40-year-old Cowan is armed with everything from calipers and nets to a waterproof notebook and even a hypodermic needle. She is systematically examining one meter square areas of beach, turning over rocks.


COWAN: There is a scale worm, which is lepadumotis. Oh -- let's see. (Scrapes) Some of the rocks are embedded in the substrate, and I won't be able to turn them over. But everything I can turn over, I will.

SCHALIT: Cowan found this cove nine years ago on a fluke. She was looking for a place to go kayaking and parked at a little boat ramp near the picturesque spot. Walking down to the water, she spied two young boys flipping over rocks.

COWAN: And I asked them what they were doing, and they said that they were playing with the baby lobsters. And I just about -- I don't know, fainted or something. Because I knew that people were looking all over for where the lobsters settle. And here they were.

SCHALIT: Cowan, already a lobster researcher, had stumbled on the motherlode of her career. Up until that point, conventional scientific thinking held that young lobsters lived out in deeper water, not in the in-shore mudflats. What Cowan found was that in fact the juvenile lobsters were settling here, not just out in deeper water.

COWAN: I found one! Yes. Hello, lobbie! Do you see it? Ahh...

SCHALIT: This may be the only lobster in Lowell's Cove tonight. In the summer they're under every rock, dozens of them. But during the winter, Cowan surmises that they move out to deeper water, except for this tiny fellow.

COWAN: And the little lobster looks just like a miniature lobster. It has the two claws, but this lobster has one claw that's smaller than the other...

SCHALIT: The entire length of the beast is perhaps two inches. The water under the rock where Cowan found him is warmer than the air, and he'll freeze if he's kept out for too long. So Cowan rushes back to her pack basket and supplies. In the eight years she's been looking at lobsters throughout New England, she and her volunteers have tagged more than 10,000 with tiny pieces of bar-coded metal no larger than a grain of sand. She inserts them in their legs with a hypodermic needle. The tags allow her to follow the progress of individual lobsters over the years. And Diane Cowan has been following lobsters for a very long time.

COWAN: I wrote a paper for a ninth grade English class on lobsters. I called it "Lobsters, An In-Depth Study." And ironically (laughs) almost everything I wrote in that paper I've done something with.

SCHALIT: Her classmates started calling her "The Lobster Lady," and it's a name that's stuck for good reason. Cowan and only a handful of other scientists are pioneers in lobster research. That's because very little is actually known about the life cycle of a lobster.

COWAN: In other ways, we know so much. We have a great deal of data on the industry. The size lobsters that come up in traps we know quite a bit about. We know a lot about this organism's physiology, neurobiology, because it's a great lab rat. So a lot of laboratory research has been done with it. But its behavior in nature and its natural ecology isn't that well studied. And probably for obvious reasons. It's a cold water animal, it's nocturnally active. It's not an easy animal to study in nature.


SCHALIT: But Cowan has made it her business to do just that, even quitting her university teaching job because it interfered with getting out to the shore. Her science has real-world applications. For years, fisheries managers have used what those in the lobster industry call an arcane mathematical model to predict the size of lobster catches and limit lobstermen's take. These models have been predicting a crash for years, despite the fact that lobster catches have actually gone up consistently throughout the last century. Cowan and a handful of other researchers are providing the first real data on where young lobsters settle.

COWAN: So, by knowing how many lobsters are settling in a year, and comparing year to year settlement densities, was this a good year for lobster settlement, a bad year for lobster settlement, we can say well, maybe then, some odd years down the line there will be a good year for the lobster industry, there will be a bad year, the catch will be up or down.

SCHALIT: Cowan considers herself a scientist first and foremost, but her concern for both the lobsters and lobster fishermen sometimes takes her away from the water.

COWAN: (Sighs) I am -- I'm torn in some ways. I love science, and I do this because I'm a scientist. But I also care a lot about the lobster industry, the people who make their living from it, and I care a lot about the success of the lobsters throughout their lives. So, although my favorite thing to do is science, sometimes I feel compelled to do a little bit of advocacy. The lobsters can't speak for themselves, and if I see a threat to them, I'll try to speak for them.

SCHALIT: But right now, back at the cove, Cowan's immediate concern is getting one little lobster back home. First, she has to see whether this is a lobster she's tagged before.

COWAN: Okay. We tag -- the tags I put in the lobster are magnetic. So I will run this magnet over the lobster to recharge the tag in case it's lost its magnetism, and then run it past this detector, which is really a metal, magnetic metal detector. And it emits a beep if there's a tag in the lobster.

SCHALIT: There's no beep, so this is one she hasn't captured before. But Cowan won't take the time to tag this lobster. She's afraid it's been out of the water too long. She measures the lobster's length, examines him, and concludes that he's actually a her, writes all of this down as well as the size and location of the rock under which she found it. Now, it's time to put the lobster back.

COWAN: This is such a large rock, and I don't want to crush the lobster. I'll put the rock back first, and then get the lobster to climb back under it. All right. So I just put him tail first under his rock, because they like to back into their shelter entrances.

SCHALIT: Diane Cowan gently places the lobster down. This year, for the first time, Cowan and other scientists said that they had found fewer juvenile lobsters making their homes along Maine's coast. And they are concerned that this could mean a decline in lobster populations. Cowan says she's got a lot more work to do. So while one very cold reporter calls it a night and walks back to the car, Diane Cowan heads out to turn over more rocks. For Living on Earth, I'm Naomi Schalit in Lowell's Cove, Maine.

(Footfalls, splashes, and surf up and under)

Diver Dan



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