Lobsters and oil spills

Dr. Jelle Atema's work on the chemoreceptors of lobsters has found that lobster behavior in the presence of oil pollution is quite complex. Old-time lobstermen knew that kerosene-soaked bricks attracted lobsters, but the practice was outlawed because of its detrimental effect on lobsters. In experiments conducted by Atema, the bricks made some lobsters more aggressive, caused others to retreat, and led still others to clean themselves compulsively. When small amounts of kerosene on absorbent pads were placed in their tanks, some lobsters ate them. If this occurred in an area of the ocean polluted by oil, the lobsters' flesh would become tainted and unfit to eat. A long-term effect of oil pollution could be to disrupt the behavior of lobsters in feeding and mating by confounding the signals sent to their sensitive chemoreceptors.

In addition, oil in seawater in amounts as low as 1/10 of one percent can kill larval lobsters while they are still plankton floating in the water. One consequence of an oil disaster could be to devastate lobster fishing 5 to 7 years after a spill when those larval lobsters would have been reaching market size.

A lobster's sensitivity to pollution might benefit humans. Like the coal miners who carried caged canaries to work with them to detect gas leaks in the mine shafts, we can view lobsters as an early warning system of the degradation of the sea.

Lobstering and Right Whales

Once one of the most populous and popular species of whales pursued by 19th century whalers, only about 300 Northern right whales exist today. Even though they haven't been hunted for many years, this northern species of right whale is on the brink of extinction. Scientists are struggling to understand why this population of whales has not recovered as others have. They worry that there is not a large enough or healthy enough population (due to inbreeding) to allow the species to endure.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are determined to do what they can to protect the remaining few Northern right whales. Many individual right whales carry the scars of boat collisions or entanglement by fishing gear. Right whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The National Marine Fisheries Service, charged with enforcing this law, recently issued draft recommendations aimed at safeguarding the right whale. The agency proposed requiring each lobster boat to install breakaway buoys and sinking ropes, at an estimated cost of $5,000 - $15,000 per harvester. Lobstermen, legislators, and even the Governor of Maine protested vigorously, claiming that the regulations would be disastrous to the lobstering industry and have no positive impact on the whales.

According to a commentary in the Maine Sunday Telegram by Trevor Corson (May 18, 1997), whales are far more likely to be struck by large vessels than be entangled in fishing gear. "In the past six years alone, ship strikes have killed at least eight right whales," he states. The National Marine Fisheries Service is now looking at alternative solutions. Stay tuned for further developments!