American Lobsters: From Trash to Treasure

North America lobsters were originally a poor person’s food.

While an expensive luxury today, the American lobster (aka Homarus americanus, the Maine lobster, Canadian lobster, northern lobster, etc) was once a food of last resort. Native American tribes of the northeastern coastal regions would use lobsters as fertilizer, fish bait, and when necessary food. European colonists also viewed lobsters as inferior last-resort bottom feeders. These “cockroaches of the sea” became relegated to food for the poor, for servants, prisoners, slaves, and sometimes even feed for livestock.

The turnaround for lobsters began in the 19th century with two new industries: canning and railroads. As canning became a viable way to preserve & ship food lobster meat became a cheap export from the New England area. Lobster meat was sent via rail to locations all around North America. This was followed by tourists visiting New England along some of the same rail lines. These tourists were able to finally taste fresh lobster meat instead of canned and lobster’s popularity grew. By the 1880s demand for lobster (especially fresh lobster which must be shipped alive) combined with a decrease in supply, lead to higher prices. This helped establish lobster as the expensive delicacy we think of today.

Expensive?

Like any commodity, lobster is subject to price fluctuations. While lobster typically maintains its cultural status as an expensive delicacy, this doesn’t always reflect the real cost. For example, the over abundance of lobsters around 2009 sent the wholesale price of lobster from around $6 a pound to half that – but it would have been hard to notice. Restaurants don’t typically reduce their prices because an ingredient has suddenly become cheaper.

However, when lobster is less expensive it does appear in unexpected places. Around 2012 Gastropubs included lobster in dishes such as macaroni & cheese, fast food chains included lobster on their menus, Walgreens in downtown Boston even sold live lobsters – all things you don’t usually see when a commodity is expensive. Today, even in years when lobster is abundant and the cost is low, it is still thought of as a luxury item.

Lobster Immortality

Lobsters are not immortal, but still pretty special

To point out that lobsters aren’t immortal may seem unnecessary unless you’ve previously seen internet buzz stories that lobsters might be able to live forever. Different species of lobsters have different lifespans but male European lobsters typically live around 31 years and females live around 54 years. This is far from forever. Aside from being killed by disease and fishing, how do lobsters die?

To understand the longevity of lobsters there are a few things to understand. To start, one of the remarkable things about lobsters is that, unlike humans and most other animals, lobsters continue to get bigger as they get older. Humans get to an adult size and stop getting taller, but for lobsters there is no upper limit on how large they can grow to be. Another remarkable thing about lobsters is that as they age they don’t show many signs of aging like we do. They don’t get weak, or slow down, or stop reproducing as they get older. Part of this longevity is how their cells divide. Unlike humans, lobsters continue to produce an enzyme called telomerase which helps repair chromosomes damaged during cell division. Having undamaged chromosomes likely leads to not feeling the effects of old age, and so lobsters just keep living normal lives … until they don’t.

Moulting

Lobsters are invertebrates with exoskeletons. In order for a lobster to get larger as it ages, it has to shed its current exoskeleton and grow a new one. It basically runs out of room in its shell and needs to start a new roomier one. Therein lies the problem. While there may be no physical upper limit as to how large a lobster can get, every moulting takes more energy than the time before and eventually a lobster just doesn’t have the energy to shed its exoskeleton. 10-15% of lobsters die during the moulting process because they run out of energy. For those older lobsters who just stop moulting, they begin to accumulate damage to the shells and eventually die.

An added bonus: Another question the internet seems to ask is if lobsters feel pain. Yes they do, and being boiled alive is not enjoyable for lobsters (it’s illegal to boil a lobster alive in New Zealand, Switzerland, and parts of Italy).

To end on a high note, while most lobsters are dark bluish greens and greenish browns, genetic mutations can produce some really spectacular looking lobsters. Similar to most animals, albinos are very rare (1 in 100 million). Unlike most other animals though, lobsters have another extremely rare coloration (1 in 100 million) where the lobster is pastel blues & subtle pinks called “cotton candy”.

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