The American lobster (Homarus americanus) is the largest and heaviest species of crustacean, reaching sizes in excess of 40 pounds. American lobsters also have an indeterminate upper lifespan, current theories suggest they may be biologically immortal. There are plenty of ways a lobster can die, but old age might not be one of them. They have a range from the Labrador coast to the tip of New Jersey and are closely related to the smaller European lobster. Both of these species are considered “true lobsters” as opposed to the spiny lobsters, which are closer in relation to hermit crabs.
Lobster has been a valuable food item to native peoples for millennia, same as in Europe. But familiarity bred contempt in early New England. These “cockroaches of the sea” were so abundant that servants, prisoners, even cattle were fed lobsters. There are legends of rioting prisoners and laws prohibiting the serving of too many lobsters. Although these stories may be apocryphal, it is a cautionary tale; enjoy the bounty while it lasts.
Lobster began to rise in popularity with the introduction of canning in the 1840’s. No longer poor people’s food, this was the beginning of the famous Maine lobster fishery as we know it today. With improved transportation, live Maine lobster (marketed as such regardless of where caught) is available worldwide. American lobster is also available all year long, most of it supplied by Maine, Massachusetts, and Eastern Canada.
How Lobsters are Caught
Lobster can be caught by divers, and in trawl-nets, but mostly by the iconic lobster trap, now made of wire instead of wood. It has been said that the process of baiting lobster traps is evidence of the most successful aquaculture process in history. Lobster fishermen often re-catch the same lobsters they released. Lobster fishing is very sustainable, has very little by-catch, and lost traps do not keep fishing thanks to escape hatches and bio-degradable elements. Although lobster landings fluctuate, in many areas it is the bait that is harder to come by.
Controversy surrounding the lobster industry and the endangered Atlantic right whale has spread through the mass media, along with misinformation. The offshore lobster fishery is less affected by the strict regulations and breakaway gear the inshore, seasonal fishery has to deal with. Right whales swim close to shore, so current rules eliminated two months of the fishing season when the whales are migrating. The gear is designed to break under tension, so the whales don’t get entangled.
This was done at a huge cost to the fishermen, who paid out of pocket for a solution that many say was unneeded. I am the son of a lobsterman, most of my friends are lobstermen, I’ve done it as a kid and young adult. I’ve seen these changes firsthand. Gloucester, Massachusetts is the leading lobster fishing port in the Commonwealth, and I have never heard of anyone entangling a right whale. The closest thing I’ve witnessed was a young minke whale getting caught in gear. The whale was sick and strayed almost onto the rocks.
Fishermen in the area have been saying for over a decade that large container ships, tankers and cruise ships are more of a threat to marine mammals. There are numerous unreported ship-strikes on whales, possibly compounded by the noise these huge vessels make. Commercial fishermen of the Gulf of Maine are also very concerned about even bigger threats to the local ecosystem.
Buying American Lobster
Lobster is usually sold live, but lobster meat can also be sold refrigerated or frozen. Frozen and refrigerated lobster meat is usually pre-cooked, but frozen raw lobster is usually sold as an intact tail. Canned or tinned lobster has been transformed into a gourmet option in recent years. When picking out lobster you want a “live” one: vigorous tail flipping is a good sign. Don’t go for lobster that looks droopy (they are called “weaks” for a reason) and definitely don’t cook a dead lobster. Many lobster dealers offer a good price on “culls” which are lobsters that are missing one claw or “bullets” which are missing both. When I was lobster fishing with dad we ate the culls, bullets and weaks and sold the rest.
Lobster is available year-round and graded by size and hardness of shell. Chickens or “Chix” are the smallest at about 1 pound, then 1.25 “Quarters”, 1.50 “Halves” then “Deuces” at between 2 and 2.5 pounds. My favorite is the “Large Select” between 2.5 and 3.5 pounds. “Jumbos” go up to 6 pounds and anything bigger is a “Large Jumbo.” These are monsters, I once weighed out a 27-pounder unloading an offshore lobster boat in the 1990’s.
However, I know most people think of lobster as a summertime food. Remember, during the spring-early summer American lobsters shed their shells. Although a soft-shell lobster is easier to eat – you may not even need a shell-cracker – you run the risk of eating a lobster with less meat and tasting more like seawater than lobster. If you want a rich-tasting, succulent lobster then get a hard shelled one.
Although a lobster tail is a nice big piece of meat, there is plenty more meat in a good-sized American lobster is better tasting. The claws, head, even the little legs and small tail flaps all have sweet tasting meat, but the knuckles that connect the claws to the body are the sweetest – the tenderloin of the lobster. Many people ignore the little legs as a waste of time, but there is a good amount of sweet meat in there. Do what I do and save them for the end; break off the segments and roll them with one of your empty beer bottles like a rolling pin to squeeze out every last bit of flavor.
There is no shortage of options for buying lobster, from the local supermarket to online. However, I suggest supporting local fishermen as much as possible by buying domestic lobster and not a foreign import. If your local source has suspiciously cheap lobster, check to see they are not imported before buying.
For an alternative to lobster, large shrimp or prawns can be used. Monkfish has long been known in New England as “poor man’s lobster” however it has been discovered by the public for its delicious flavor. A tasty substitute, but maybe not for the “poor man” anymore.