Viva!’s Tony Wardle reveals the cruel truth behind the lucrative lobster industry…
Many claim that fish are stupid, have a three-second memory span and don’t feel pain. These convenient notions make exploiting them much more acceptable to the unenquiring mind. Truth is, fish have complex social patterns, a long-term memory in order to identify food sources and predators, and pain is an essential part of their survival. In fact, they have very similar pain receptors to mammals.
Crustaceans, such as lobsters and crabs, have fared even worse from myth-making and we’ve been told that boiling them alive was fine – heat them up from cold and they sleep; plunge them into boiling water and they die instantly. However, simple observation shows the animals scrabbling around the pan in desperation. Some scientists even decided to torture the lobster’s close kin, hermit crabs, just so they could verify the obvious.
They gave them electric shocks and when the shocks became severe enough the crabs would leave their shells, despite their soft bodies making them vulnerable to predators. The smell made by their predators was then injected into the tanks and the hermit crabs withstood far greater pain from the shocks rather than emerge to be eaten.
So lobsters feel pain, considerable pain, of that there is no doubt. And they are not the strange automata that we are led to believe, but have incredibly complex social lives, despite mostly being solitary creatures.
The mating game
Lobsters moult – shed their shells – to enable them to grow, hiding while their new shell hardens. During the first couple of years that can be up to 25 times and then it slows down until after seven years old, it is just once a year. Females only mate immediately after they have shed their shells and will cosy up with the male in his lair for 10 days or so. By that time her new shell will have hardened and she will emerge to produce some 10,000 eggs, which she carries beneath her abdomen before they hatch into minuscule, plankton-sized young, to drift on the ocean thermals and currents. Those who survive eventually take up residence on the ocean floor in mud, sand or, preferably, rock.
The male then repeats the mating process with another female – and another and another… Game boys are male lobsters. As part of the mating process they can travel with other lobsters in long, fluid, almost choreographed processions hundreds of metres long and travel as far as 100 miles in a kind of beautifully elegant pilgrimage that no one truly understands.
Lobsters are decapods (having ten feet) and there are hundreds of varieties across the world but only a few species are caught and eaten – the main ones being the American (Homarus americanus).and European lobster (Homarus gammarus), with their red colour and big claws, which can exert up to 100lbs pressure. They are thought to live up to 50 years and increase in size with every moult, becoming more fertile the older they get. The largest ever caught weighed more than 40lbs, although the average size served in most restaurants is 1-2lbs. Many warm-water lobsters have no claws and are often referred to as crayfish.
Another popular variety is the Norwegian lobster (Nephrops norvegicus), better known as the Dublin Bay prawn, langoustine or scampi – much smaller and slimmer than the other types of lobster and orange in colour, measuring up to 22cm. They are usually associated with Mediterranean holidays, even though few are caught there. The main fishing ground is the North Atlantic, particularly the Irish Sea, where they live in burrows in the sand, popping out at night to feed – and that’s when they are caught by trawlers using otter board trawls. A staggering 46,955 tonnes are allowed to be taken each year and almost the entire catch is exported – particularly to the Mediterranean. This type of trawling, of course, is one of the most destructive forms of fishing ever devised because of the damage it does to the seabed and other sea life.
Bigger lobsters are caught almost exclusively by baited pots (traps) and just about every fishery will have some lobster boats at work. Others are winkled out of their rocky hides by scuba divers or taken as ‘by-catch’ by trawlers fishing for other species – and the combined total global catch is extraordinary – in excess of 181,000 metric tons but widely believed to be under-reported.
A great deal of this is accounted for by the much-publicised US Maine fisheries and their Canadian neighbours. Along the Maine coast as many as three million baited traps are set and hauled in again each year by 5,800 lobster fishermen who, between them, produced sales figures of about $533.1 million in 2016 but this was the boat price not retail value. Retail values this year stand at about $7 a pound.
Such a total would be impossible without on-shore hatcheries that take fertilised eggs from female lobsters, rear the fry to a size where survival odds are better and then release millions of them into the Maine waters. It’s difficult to imagine the impact that such a large number of a single species in one area will have on the biodiversity, but just up the coast in Canada the industry is twice the size of the Maine fishery.
Lobsters can remain in the pots for up to seven days before being hauled in and then face two fates. Some are snapped in half while still alive, their tails being cooked for use in commercial products. The majority have their claws bound with elastic bands to prevent fighting because, as a largely solitary species, it is stressful to be kept in close proximity with other animals and they will fight. They are then posted, still alive, all over the US and the world, with £26 million dollars-worth going from Maine to China.
Lobsters have, so far, largely been saved the agony of industrial farming, mostly because it can take seven years to reach a saleable size and they have big appetites. There is some rearing in ponds in much the same way as prawns, but they have mostly been saved factory farming – until now. Vietnam is trying it and the use of submersible tanks is being touted around the UK. But it’s one restaurant chain in the USA that is really going for it.
They are planning the world’s largest lobster farm – in Malaysia on a 23,000-acre site with 12,000 workers. Their aim is to churn out 96,000 tonnes of lobster annually, worth $1 billion. And as with every other factory farm, on land or sea, we know exactly what the outcome will be in terms of environmental devastation and appalling animal welfare.
Viva! is a charity working to promote veganism and to end animal suffering. Tony Wardle is a journalist and award-winning documentary film maker. He has been involved with Viva! since its inception 21 years ago. www.viva.org.uk