Thursday, September 14, 2017

(Re)Consider The Lobster

Lobster Cages in the moonlight at the North Head Wharf; Grand Manan, New Brunswick. Photo by the author.

(Re)Consider the Lobster
by Katie Gougelet

Thanks for taking the time to visit my tiny cabinet this week! In the display, I explore/explain my summer research about the lobster industry in Grand Manan, New Brunswick with the Grand Manan Field Studies Program run by Professor Alison Deming. I juxtapose my own photos and artifacts from Grand Manan with various images of lobsters that have recently captured the public imagination. 

Below you'll find some quick notes I took after a visit to a lobster holding tank on Grand Manan. When David Foster Wallace wrote his famous essay Consider the Lobster, he commented on the living conditions of lobsters being held at the Maine Lobster Festival. In these large holding tanks, lobsters would often fight each other, and even cannibalize each other. The new technology at tank houses, like the one I visited in Grand Manan, provides a solution for this, and allows lobstermen to control precisely when they release their catch to the market. This technology has brought millions of dollars in revenue to the island of Grand Manan. The essay I’m working on now, “(Re)Consider the Lobster” explores current changes in the lobster industry in Grand Manan (including dramatic shifts in the population caused by climate change), and the game-changing role that these tank houses play in bringing more of this resource to an international community of lobster-hungry humans.

Fieldnotes from Grand Manan, New Brunswick:
Meeting Lobsters at the Tank House

The inside of the building is cold and fluorescent; the air is stale and smells not like fish or ocean but something subtler, something in between. The entire bottom of the building is filled with tanks burbling quietly, and in the tanks are cages that fall five feet deep beneath the floor that we walk on. Each of the cages is filled with dozens of lobsters. From our vantage point we can see just the tops of the cages otherwise, they are fully submerged, and bubbles and froth fill the gabs between the cages and the waterline. The tops of the cages are roped up with sea foam rope. And the cages themselves are three different colors: the green, the most abundant, are for the 1-2 pound lobsters; the yellow 2-4; the blue 4-6; and in the orange cages, deep under the water, the 6+ pound lobsters, lobsters so big that their meat is too tough to eat. Despite this, they are still profitable. The Chinese market for these large beasts has been growing though these lobsters cannot be eaten, they remain symbols of status at feasts. This particular tank house will load up these 6+ pounders into trucks and then into planes, where they will be shipped half way across the world to shine, dead on the table, in their newfound cultural status.
            The man who shows us around the operations has kind blue eyes, is tan, his hair thinning slightly, and is built like a man who has been at sea hauling lobster traps out of the ocean for a big portion of his life. He explains that in the cages, the lobsters are essentially doing what they do in winter, sleeping, really, their own version of hibernation. It’s called a “torpid state”: the lobster metabolism slows significantly, so that they need to eat and move very little.
            Each lobster sits in a lobster condo” a lobster-sized rectangular cube in which they rest, claws banded, as they get lowered in to the cold water. When the fishermen first put the lobsters in the water, it is room temperature, and then the new technology of the tank house allows them to gradually lower the temperature until it reaches just above freezing just enough to allow the lobsters to achieve their torpid metabolic states.
            “It’s just a second winter,” the man says, but I wonder how that affects their physiology living through another stage of cardiovascular suppression. When they wake up, he says, they are incredibly fierce. Snappy, spritely, keen to grab at the fingers of the women who are tasked with processing them, some of whom have in fact lost fingers or parts of them by processing the crustaceans in the past.  
            The man pulled a large cage of lobsters out from one of the very cold pools. I’m not sure what I expected they would look like in this supercool phase, but they seemed extraordinarily sentient; their antennae swiveling back and forth and their eyes, short, black glossy tubes, waggled a bit too. Their claws were larger than my hand; and realizing that made me put my hands out of sight. But while the littler lobsters can take off part of a finger, apparently the big ones move too slowly for that. Too old and sluggish from the rhythms of deep sea life.   
            David Foster Wallace describes lobsters as solitary creatures, crawling across the ocean floor or scuttling around backwards in a lithe flick of the tail. Scoop, swish, scuttle scuttle, claws grabbling at the cold ocean floor. I imagine what it might be like to be down there with them, the sound of all of them lobstering away, crawling into traps, grabbing some chicken, and if they’re sneaky, which so many of them are, escaping the traps to their blue green abyss.

            Since they’re solitary, what do they think now, up in the air before us? The black eyes of one of the biggest ones swivels, probing the air for information about this glistening fluorescent place, and the sad looking hominids – writers all of them - looking back.

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