Maine Lobster Fest Organizers Not Plagued By Concerns Over Lobsters’ Feelings

10weekevents - Salem Willows Seafood Festival - Lobsters. (Handout)
A lobster sat on a tray at the Salem Willows Seafood Festival.
Handout

People really like lobster.

The Maine Lobster Festival draws tens of thousands of people to Rockland each summer, just as July is fading into August. According to John Jeffers, Vice President of the MLF, it began in 1947 as a way to help give a burst to the local lobster industry, which used to struggle with business during lobster shedding season (July to October).

Back in the 1940s, the festival consisted of a parade, lobster cooked by several local dealers, a concert by the Rockland City Band on Saturday afternoon, and a coronation ball Saturday evening, according to the festival’s website.

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In 2004, it was clear just how popular the event had become. David Foster Wallace described crustacean-filled celebration in an essay for Gourmet Magazine:

“Available are lobster rolls, lobster turnovers, lobster sauté, Down East lobster salad, lobster bisque, lobster ravioli, and deep-fried lobster dumplings. Lobster Thermidor is obtainable at a sit-down restaurant called The Black Pearl on Harbor Park’s northwest wharf...There are lobster T-shirts and lobster bobblehead dolls and inflatable lobster pool toys and clamp-on lobster hats with big scarlet claws that wobble on springs.”

Over the last ten years, the event has gotten even bigger.

This year, besides a carnival, art show, “Sea Goddess” coronation, Food Network show filming, wine and beer tasting, and an assortment of music performances, there’s quite a bit of lobster.

“Most people order a single [lobster],” Jeffers said, “but one lady ordered a triple then ordered a single.” Each order comes with a roll and an ear of buttered corn on the cob.

This year, Jeffers said they would probably go through about 25,000 pounds of lobster, caught from local lobstermen and women around Maine in the last week. The lobsters are shipped to the festival grounds live in a refrigerated truck, where they are sorted, placed in cooking nets hoisted by hydraulic lifts, and hauled into one of the steamers in “The World’s Greatest Lobster Cooker.” It takes the lobsters about 18 minutes to cook in the scalding cooking oil.

The cooker itself is only two years old, and it’s a behemoth. The brick structure holds eight steaming units inside, and each cooker can hold 80 pounds of lobster at a time, according to Pete Smith, the festival’s resident cook.

Smith said this year they are having difficulty getting “shedders,” or lobsters that have recently traded their cramped shell for a new one. Shedders’ shells are much thinner and easier to crack, so Smith said they are preferred for the festival so that customers aren’t looking for “fruit crackers” to get the succulent meat out.

Do lobsters feel pain? It depends who you ask.

Are there better—or more humane—ways to cook the crustaceans than the “World’s Greatest Lobster Cooker?”

If you ask Jeffers and Smith, there isn’t much of an ethical issue, because neither think lobsters can feel pain.

“My understanding is that they have not evolved to have pain sensors,” Jeffers said.

Smith felt likewise: “Lobsters have no central nervous system, similar to an insect. I step on insects and it really doesn’t bother me.”

But research by scientist Robert Elwood suggests that lobsters and other invertebrates do feel some pain.

The Washington Post reports that Elwood did experiments with brief applications of electric shocks, light, and acid, and found that the invertebrates responded with “complex, prolonged movements” that “clearly involved the central nervous system.” In short, a hermit crab methodically rubbing the spot where it has just been electric shocked is probably not just a reflex.

Sure, insects probably don’t feel pain (Locusts continue to eat even while they are being eaten), but crustaceans have more developed nervous systems.

PETA told The Press Herald that there were humane ways to kill lobsters. They suggest “stunning them, which kills any nerves and any ability to feel pain” or “high-pressure processing,” which kills and cooks lobsters in seconds.

Bottom line: People love lobster. Don’t forget your bib.