The Hippo


Jul 16, 2019








The Last Lobster, by Christopher White
(St. Martin’s Press, 233 pages)


 The Last Lobster, by Christopher White (St. Martin’s Press, 233 pages)

Vegans, beware The Last Lobster. The book masquerades as a mild-mannered examination of the effects of climate change on Maine’s most prolific industry, but anyone perched on the extreme edge of animal rights will see it as suffer porn, with its dispassionate details of how lobsters get from ocean to table.
For omnivores, Christopher White’s new book is an interesting, if sometimes tedious, look at what’s happening on the floor of the Atlantic as water temperatures slowly climb. 
The Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Cape Cod to Cape Sable Island (also known as the lobster capital of Canada), is warming by an average of one degree every two years, according to White. This may not be significant to anyone who tries to swim in it in June, but some scientists believe that it’s enough to cause a creeping northward migration of some types of marine life. This includes blue crabs, cod and lobsters, which cannot survive in water over 70 degrees.
“The whole species profile of the North Atlantic is changing, and with it the ecosystem,” writes White, a Princeton-educated biologist and author of three other books, including one on the oyster industry.
But don’t cry for the lobster, or the lobsterman — not yet. In fact, the lobster industry is booming, which makes much of White’s detail-rich narrative seem like overwrought hand-wringing. The lobstermen whom White befriends have harvested record amounts of lobster in recent years, so much so that teenagers have made $60,000 in a summer, and boat captains more than $200,000 a year.
This is because there’s recently been a veritable glut of lobsters, yielding more than 120 million pounds of lobster in each of the past five years. This is six times the amount of lobster harvested in the 1980s, at least in Maine. It’s a different story in Connecticut and northern Long Island, where lobster used to be abundant but by 2013 had shrunk to 3 percent of what it used to be.
In Maine, however, the good times are rolling. Lobstermen are buying bigger houses and bigger boats, leading White and others to worry about what’s going to happen if the Gulf of Maine keeps getting warmer and the lobsters scuttle even farther north. 
For now, though, it’s estimated that there are about 250 million lobsters in the Gulf of Maine, five times the number two decades ago. It’s believed that the lobsters are multiplying like rabbits because the warming water is doing two things: reducing the number of predators, and disrupting the natural reproductive cycle of lobsters.  
Just as hot temperatures cause humans to shed their clothes, warm water induces molting in lobsters, White explains. Instead of shedding its exoskeleton once over the summer, a lobster will molt twice when the water is warmer, and lobsters will mature faster and mate more readily. (Consult pages 67 and 68 for a primer on lobster sex.) Hence, the lobster boom.
The book, however, is not so much a celebration as it is a cautionary tale, with White solemnly pointing to the Lobsterless Summer Yet To Come. There will be foreclosures, he warns. There will be unemployment. There will be armed conflict between competing lobstermen from Maine and Canada. “This is a ticking suitcase out there,” White quotes a Maine lobsterman as saying. “It’s just a matter of months before someone gets killed.”
Hyperbole happens, but it’s clear that the men and women who trade in lobsters are obsessives with the intensity of Captain Ahab. Even in the water off Stonington, Maine, a town in which three-quarters of the citizens owe their livelihood to lobsters, boat captains have established territories which newcomers invade at their peril. Throw a trap into someone else’s water, and it will be vandalized. When such territorialism involves nation’s borders, things will get ugly, and when the lobsters leave the coast of Maine, the state’s treasured culture will collapse, White warns.
Predictably, there is a solution, bringing up the rear in this paragraph on the infighting between Canada and Maine:
“The great irony is that lobsters do not observe international boundaries. They are on the move between the Gray Zone and beyond. No treaty or trap cutting or gunfire can stop them. Just a ban on fossil fuels.”
White acknowledges that Maine’s lobstermen do not all buy into the business of climate change; he records two boat captains having a terse exchange over the subject “like two bulls in a ring.” But although White clearly believes we’re witnessing a calamity unfold in real time, his story is not overtly political and is largely an engrossing look at a way of life that’s more Melville than Zuckerberg.
New research on how crustaceans process pain has led some countries, including Sweden and New Zealand, to make it illegal to boil lobsters alive. But these are headlines not welcome on the coast of Maine, and White’s access to lobster boats would have been abruptly cut off had he mentioned them. 
Subtitled “Boom or Bust for Maine’s Greatest Fishery?,” The Last Lobster poses the question but doesn’t answer it, which makes its conclusion vaguely unsatisfying, as does a low-grade hysteria that seems a bit premature. However, its depiction of interesting lives, both human and crustacean, makes for an interesting read, so long as the reader is not overly stressed by what occurs at a lobster bake. B — Jennifer Graham 

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