Surfeit in the sea
Two books examine the culture and customs of lobsters, and those who fish for them
The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean
By Trevor Corson
HarperCollins, 289 pp., $24.95
The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier
By Colin Woodard
Viking, 372 pp., $24.95
When you consider iconic American foods, most of the time there isn't much to say about the source or the provider.
There is some rugged romance to cowboys, but beef cattle are just movie extras. There is nothing exciting about turkeys, except for the wild ones when they appear in the neighborhood. As for corn . . . you can see where this is going.
Then, there are lobsters and lobstermen.
Lobsters are fascinating subjects in themselves, as revealed in Trevor Corson's ''The Secret Life of Lobsters," and the lobstermen are portrayed as craggy foragers in ''The Lobster Coast" by Colin Woodard.
There are overlaps, to be sure. Both writers have a Maine lobsterman or two with whom they go out as amateur sternmen -- Corson with Bruce Fernald out of Little Cranberry Island, Woodard with Jennifer Elderkin out of Southport Island. And the writers share a number of marine biology and ecology experts -- Bob Steneck, a University of Maine oceanographer, and Diane Cowan, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution -- with whom they haul specimen traps, explore the lobsters' sea-bottom habitat, and observe them in their laboratories.
The differences between Corson and Woodard are in their individual styles and focuses. The reader will not go wrong with either -- and will be rewarded by both.
Corson, a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge, has a breezy style, rather on the salty side, that immediately captures and holds the reader's attention as he explains how lobsters live in their coastal environment -- as learned by scientists, and as seen by himself.
Take, for stick-in-the-mind examples, Corson's description of lobsters' mating habits. They mate only when the female has molted her old shell and before the new one hardens. The males, writes Corson, have to wait for ''the females to get undressed."
And when, in one laboratory experiment at Woods Hole, female lobsters ''pushed their way into the [male's] shelter, shed, copulated, and moved out in two days," Corson writes, ''it was the lobster equivalent of a one-night stand."
Woodard, also a freelance writer, is a Maine native who lives in Portland. His is a more straightforward style, which suits his broader focus on the history of Maine's fisheries and the culture of its fishing villages.
When the traditional livelihoods of Maine's coastal fishermen in offshore fisheries collapsed a century ago, Woodard writes, lobsters -- ''that ungainly crawler that infested the bottoms of the coves and harbors outside their bedroom windows" -- were to be their ''lasting salvation." Not only were they abundant and relatively easy to trap from small boats, but the arrival of summer people from the 1880s on ''provided a critical boost . . . by eating a great deal of fresh seafood."
The surprise is that unlike cod, haddock, and other fish once abundant in New England waters, lobsters appear to be thriving -- even as the annual catch increases -- to 62.3 million pounds in 2002 from 21.7 million pounds in 1988, and the number of full-time lobstermen has grown -- to about 5,500 in 1998 from 2,500 in 1973.
And Woodard cites his own evidence. On a dive with Steneck in the Thread of Life, a narrow channel off South Bristol, Maine, he writes, ''lobsters were everywhere," burrowing in holes on the sandy bottom, and hidden behind rocks and cobbles a bit farther offshore.
To explain this abundance, Woodard goes lobstering with Elderkin, watches underwater videos, and delves into economic theory. With Elderkin, he observes how lobstermen, following fisheries' regulations, measure the size of lobsters caught in their traps and release those that are under- or oversize, and how they cut a small ''V" notch in the shell of a breeding female to mark it as a lobster that can never be harvested.
On videos taken off Portsmouth, N.H., Woodard sees how lobsters ''were happily wandering in and out of the traps at will." In repeated tests, he reports, only 6 percent of those that entered ''failed to find their way out again."
University of New Hampshire researcher Win Watson offers a ''restaurant hypothesis." Lobsters enter, feed on the bait, then leave or are chased away by a larger lobster. So when ''you pull up the restaurant . . . you catch whoever happens to be in there at the time."
The theory, applied to fisheries and other commonly held natural resources by biologist Garrett Hardin, is that of the ''triumph of the commons" in which local communities -- like those of lobstermen -- ''cooperate to regulate the use of their commonly held resource."
Citing a pioneering 1988 study of Maine's ''lobster gangs" by James Acheson, Woodard writes that ''the traditional system by which Maine and Maritime lobstermen have long managed their fishery has literally become a textbook example of how communities successfully protect and defend the resource they depend on."
In addition to abiding by size and reproductive regulations, local lobstermen police their informal territories and, as Woodard puts it, ''through custom, peer pressure, and the occasional extralegal act, the lobstermen of each harbor have long conserved their lobstering turf; they determine who fishes it and, to a certain extent, by what means."
In such matters, of course, it is not prudent to be too optimistic. The scientists and the theorists may be wrong; a change in the ocean currents in the Gulf of Maine, a million pounds in the annual catch -- or one lobsterman too many in the coves and harbors -- and the lobster fishery could collapse.
One of Corson's sources, Bruce Fernald's father, Warren, ''thought a natural downswing in lobster catches might be just what the industry needed." ''I always relish a shakeout," the older Fernald told Corson. ''Sometimes scoundrels get into the fishery. After a shakeout they don't do so well. The guys that have been hanging in there do okay."
Michael Kenney regularly reviews for the Globe.