I was raised a New Englander and, by custom, eating lobster had been a staple in my diet. The problem with custom, however, is that we seldom question its tenets, propelling us to mindlessly continue behavior that scrutiny might render pause, if not discontinuance.
My misgivings began some years years ago when I found myself in a restaurant featuring a large water tank, containing lobsters scavenging its pebbled bottom, oblivious to their impending fate of being boiled live.
It spoiled everything for me. I no longer could enjoy squeezing the shell until it cracked, exposing the meat of the hideously killed creature.
Several years ago, my wife and I met up with our children in Maine, a favorite haunt for us with its rocky coasts, salty air, deep forests, quaint villages and, yes, super ice cream. In Maine, you eat crabs, clams, or lobsters. And so, here I am in a seafood restaurant, my family toiling at their lobsters; that is, except me.
But are lobsters sentient? Do they feel pain?
I say yes, based on recent science research, indicating their nervous system is complex. The fact they have a spine should suffice. When you drop them into that boiling water, however, they lack vocal chords to voice their screams.
You don’t really need the lab to confirm their suffering. Just witness a lobster or crab hurling itself violently against the sides of a pot of boiling water.
Opponents retort it’s simply reflex, taking us back to Descartes and his mechanistic assessment of animal behavior, ignoring their neurological components. On the other hand, crabs in a recent experiment rapidly adjusted their habits to avoid areas where they had previously experienced an electric shock.
A number of countries have taken legal measures to protect crustaceans like lobsters from unnecessary pain, among them, Norway, New Zealand, Austria and parts of Italy and Germany.
Switzerland set the precedent in 2018, banning boiling crustaceans alive, based on research indicating they feel pain. They needn’t possess a neocortex to experience pain. Biologist Robert Elwood, whose research led to Switzerland’s ruling, tells us that “crustacean brains and nervous systems are configured differently” (aldf.org).
But what about freezing them, a predominate recourse in shipping lobsters over long distances, say, to Biden’s recent celeb bash for the French president?
In June 2016, Italy’s highest court outlawed the practice, ruling it inflicted unjustifiable suffering. That makes sense. Freezing sentient creatures is no less repulsive than boiling them alive.
But environment also looms as a pressing concern involving the lobster industry.
Whole Foods has joined the debate, announcing it will no longer sell lobster after two consumer-focused environmental watchdogs— the Maine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch—pulled their certifications due to concerns over impacts on North Atlantic right whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says it will reduce whale deaths and injuries by 69%.
This morning I woke to The Guardian’s lead article, “Save whales or eat lobster”: the battle reaches the White House” (11 December 2022), centering on the Federal court’s decision to curtail Maine’s lobster industry employing 10,000 workers in order to safeguard the diminishing North Atlantic right whales.
The Biden staff, nonetheless, ordered 200 lobsters be flown in for the Macron fete, despite the 2021 1st Circuit Court of Appeals decision reinstating a ban on lobster harvesting in some 940 square miles of the Gulf of Maine from October to January to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales menaced by entanglement in fishing gear and collision with large ships.
White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford responded that they wanted to “honor our lobstermen from Maine.” Meanwhile, the court’s decision is under fast track appeal.
I’m not hopeful. Sadly, politics often govern, expediency prevails, and the pecuniary nearly always wins, with accelerated biodiversity loss and climate warming their consequence.
My high regard for environmentalist Rachel Carson persists. An oceanographer by profession, her eloquent The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award, America’s highest literary award, in 1952.
Living summers on Southport Island, Maine, adjacent to touristy Boothbay, she loved the then abundant whale life. With her typical prescience, she also served an incipient warning: “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.”
That was 1964, or 58-years ago.
The North American right whale, an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, has since declined to a scant 340, of which only 100 fertile females remain. We know the seas are ubiquitously afflicted with fishing gear, imposing an immense burden and much suffering upon sea life.
The lobster industry, instead of shouting their outrage, would do better to observe the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mandate to employ multiple break points to pull up lobster traps in order to prevent right whale entanglement.
Declining rapidly in number, unless we protect these whales, they will have vanished forever.