The Maine lobster (Homarus Americanus) is known around the world for its unique flavor; it is considered a delicacy whenever and however it is served. Not everyone, however, is familiar with the lobster’s “story.”
- Lobsters are invertebrates, members of the Class Crustacea of the Phylum Arthropoda. Lobsters, along with other organisms without backbones (such as crab, shrimp, crayfish, water fleas, copepods, barnacles, and wood lice), are commonly called crustaceans (from a Latin word meaning hard shell).
- The lobster’s body has 19 parts, each covered by a section of its hard shell. The shell is thin and soft where the parts join, so the lobster can bend its body and move about.
- Lobsters breathe through gills located beneath the shell on both sides of its thorax (center part).
- Lobsters have two pairs of antennae on their head. Their eyes are compound eyes, consisting of hundreds of lenses joined together on the ends of a pair of slender, jointed organs called “stalks.” They keep their antennae and eye stalks moving constantly to search for food and to watch for enemies.
- The lobster’s “brain” is about the size of a grasshopper’s. It is unlikely that the lobster’s nervous system is sophisticated enough to sense pain as we know it. Like all arthropods, the nervous system of a lobster is very primitive, containing far fewer nerve cells than human nervous systems. The nerve cells are grouped in clusters called ganglia. A lobster has no cerebral cortex, the area of the human brain that gives the perception of pain.
- Lobsters are cannibalistic. Very territorial, when they encounter one another, they become aggressive and fight, using their claws as weapons, until one backs away. They generally hide in a burrow by day and prowl the ocean floor by night, covering a mile or more and foraging for up to 100 different kinds of animals (and some plants).
- Lobster blood usually has very little color, although when exposed to air it turns pinkish or red. When cooked, however, it becomes white and “sweats” out of the meat. It is the white substance that you find along the inside of the shell when you crack it open.
- A male lobster is called a cock and a female a hen or chicken (when it weighs about one pound). A one-clawed lobster is called a cull. If it has no claws, it’s called a pistol.
- If a lobster loses a claw or an eye, it is usually able to grow another, although the new one is usually smaller. One of the most extraordinary abilities that lobsters possess is called reflex amputation. The lobster will throw or release an appendage when stimulated by shock, fear or injury. It will later regenerate this part.
- All lobsters do not have the heavy (“crusher”) claw on the same side. Those having it on the right are considered “right-handed,” and the others are “left-handed.”
- Adult lobsters cannot swim forward. Lobsters can swim forward only during the end of their juvenile stage.
- Lobsters that are legal to catch are usually between 5 and 8 years old. They generally measure between 3 1/4 and 5 inches along the carapace from behind the eye to the top of the tail.
- Lobstering brings in about $300 million in sales a year and employs 5,800 licensed fisermen who collectively haul about 3 million traps up and down the Maine coast each year. Maine’s peak year for recorded landings was 2009, when lobstermen brought in 75.6 million pounds of lobster. 2004 was the first year that the state mandated reporting of lobster catches. Lobster is Maine’s most lucrative fishery. It has been managed by the state for more than 100 years and is one of the most regulated fisheries in the world. Only a set number of fishing licenses is available, and each fisherman is restricted to 800 traps a year.
- The largest lobster ever caught in Maine measured 36 in. from nose to tail. The largest ever caught weighed just over 44 pounds; it was caught in 1977, off Nova Scotia and had a total length of 3.5 feet.
- In their native North Atlantic Ocean, the color of live lobsters varies somewhat, but in general they are a dark blue-green, with spots. There are also rare, yellow, red, and white ones. Except for the white ones, they all turn red when cooked. Why? Because the lobster’s shell consists of many different color pigment chromatophores. When it is cooked, all the pigments are masked except for astaxanthin, which is the background red pigment. A genetic defect occasionally produces the very rare “blue” lobster. The defect causes the production of an excessive amount of protein. The protein wraps around a small, red carotenoid molecule known as astaxanthin. The two push together, forming a blue complex known as crustacyanin which gives the lobster shell a blue color. About one in a million lobsters are blue. When cooked, it ends up looking like anyother lobster — a baked orange color.
MOLTING OR SHEDDING
- Lobsters grow by molting or shedding their shell. It takes a lobster four to seven years to grow to be one pound in weight and to become an adult. They molt, or shed their shells, about 25 times in those first years of life. An adult male lobster sheds its old shell and grows a new one twice a year and a female once, increasing about 1/2 in. and 1/3 pound each time. When molting, the lobster’s body gives off a substance that softens the shell. Then, by expanding its muscles, the lobster splits the shell and steps out of it. This process takes approximately 15 minutes. The new shell, which had formed under the old one, is soft and gives the lobster no protection. It takes about eight weeks for the new shell to harden. After the old hard shell is discarded the lobster is sometimes called a “new-shell lobster” or a “shedder.” In Maine, new-shell lobsters are usually harvested from July through October. No one has yet found a way to determine the exact age of a lobster because it sheds its shell so often.
- Lobsters feed on the bottom of the ocean, usually in coastal areas. They “smell” their food by using four small antennae on the front of their heads and tiny sensing hairs that cover their bodies. The larger of the 2 claws on a Maine Lobster is called the “crusher claw” and has thick teeth to crush prey. The smaller is called the “tearing claw” and has sharp teeth to tear food apart. The teeth of a lobster are in its stomach. The stomach is located a very short distance from its mouth, and the food is actually chewed in the stomach between three grinding surfaces that look like molar teeth called the “gastric mill”. Lobsters feed mostly on snails, mussels, clams, crabs, urchins, and small fish. Sometimes, larger lobsters will eat baby lobsters.
- Usually, in a particular area, one male lobster will establish himself as the dominant alpha male, a status he enforces by fighting off other males in his territory. He builds a special mating shelter, or “den,” out of rocks. He then places piles of clam shells, crab carcasses, and other items outside to show off his hunting prowess. A female interested in mating will find the “den” of a dominant male and visit it several times. After a somewhat elaborate “courtship” (including the smell test to be sure he smells good), she sheds her shell, the male turns her over, and they copulate while she’s soft. About a week later, once her new shall has started to harden, she leaves, and another female approaches to begin the mating ritual again. Lobsters do not mate for life.
After mating, the female stores the sperm for many months. Female lobsters usually lay eggs only once every two years. When she is ready to lay her eggs, she turns onto her back and cups her tail. As many as 10,000 to 20,000 eggs are pushed out of her ovaries. They are fertilized as they pass through the sperm receptacle, marked by a small triangular shield at the base of her walking legs. A sticky substance glues the eggs to the bottom of the female’s tail. She carries her eggs attached to the curved underside of the tail for about a year until they are ready to hatch. She then shakes them out of the shell, releasing them as larvae which she then attempts to consume. Only about 1/10 of one percent of those eggs will live past 6 weeks because the larvae rise to the surface where they drift and swim (using feather-like hairs on their legs) for about three to five weeks. During that time they are easy prey for sea birds, fish, and other enemies. Then, after their 4th molt, they sink to the bottom where they spend the rest of their lives. At this point in their development, the young crustaceans actually look like miniature lobsters. A lobster’s normal life span is about 15 years.
- A female lobster with a V-Notch in its tail has been found to be an egg-carrying female; she has been notched and returned to the sea to protect her eggs. It is illegal to keep and/or sell a V-Notched lobster.
- To determine the gender of a lobster, you have to look closely at the swimmerets, those small feathery appendages on the underside of the tail. The first pair of swimmerets closest to the body are hard and bony on a male, and soft and feathery like the rest of the swimmerets, on a female. Only the female has a small rectangular shield between her second pair of walking legs. This is the sperm receptacle where she stores the sperm after mating until she lays her eggs. Note, too, that a female has a wider tail than a comparably-sized male because she needs the extra breadth to carry so many eggs.
MAINE LOBSTER IS ECO-FRIENDLY
- Maine’s lobster harvesting practices are eco-friendly; learn more about the many environmentally friendly methods used by Maine lobster harvesters.
- For the health conscious, Maine Lobster is a dieter’s dream. It is low in fats, calories and cholesterol, lower than skinless white meat of chicken or turkey. The following table is supplied by the Maine Lobster Promotion Council:
|Per 100-gram portion||CALORIES||CHOLESTEROL||SATURATED FAT|
(light meat only)
(light meat only)
COOKING YOUR LOBSTER
- Live lobsters should be kept cold until you’re ready to cook them; although they can survive several days in open air as long as they are kept cool and their gills remain moist, we recommend that you cook them as soon as possible. Do not place them in fresh water (as in the bath tub), because fresh water kills them.
- To Boil: Fill a large kettle 1/4 full of water, allowing about 2 1/2 quarts of water for each lobster. If sea water is not available, add two tablespoons of salt for each quart of water. Bring the water to a boil. Put in the live lobsters one at a time and return to boil. Cover kettle and simmer about 10 minutes for 1 pound hard-shell lobsters. Add 3 minutes per pound for each additional pound.When the antennae pull out easily,the lobsters are done.
- To Steam: Put about 2 inches of salted water in the bottom of a large kettle. Bring to a rolling boil and put in the live lobsters, one at a time. Cover kettle,return water to boil and begin timing. Allow 13 minutes for 1 pound hard-shell lobsters. Add 3 minutes per pound for each additional pound. When the antennae pull out easily,the lobsters are done.
- Note: If the lobsters are new shell Maine Lobsters with soft shells (“shedders”), reduce boiling or steaming time by three minutes.
- (By the way, lobsters do not have vocal cords and thus do not scream or vocalize when cooked. Any sound you hear could be that of air escaping from the lobster’s body cavity as it expands from heating.)
- The best way to store cooked lobster meat is in the shell, to prevent it from drying out.
- Courtesy of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council
- For more information, contact the Maine Lobster Promotion Council or the Maine Seafood Organization.
- Explore the Discovery Channel’s Lobster Wars
- For an in-depth view of lobsters from trap to table, check out this exciting DVD: Maine Buggin’ – A Year in the Life of a Lobsterman
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