Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Maine Coast Diary, 2: The Lobster Conundrum

Lobsters are a big part of the economy and image here in Maine, and it seems every time I come up here to visit there's some hot controversy over everyone's favorite crustacean. This year is no exception.

Of course, there's always the ongoing debate over whether the way lobsters are raised and killed, particularly the tradition means of dropping a live animal into a pot of boiling water. Lobsterman and others have long argued that the lobster dies immediately, as evidenced by their lack of movement soon after being submerged into the pot.

Opponents claim that the animals are merely immobilized by the hot water, and in fact can live for some number of seconds in pain before succumbing. The pro-boiling advocates counter that it's incorrect to talk of lobsters feeling "pain" as humans and other animals do, since lobsters have a much less developed nervous system.

I don't know who's right, but this season the debate has taken on a high-stakes intensity with recent decisions by organic food giant Whole Foods Market. According to the Maine publication Working Waterfront (, Whole Foods will discontinue having live lobster tanks in its retail stores. Lobsterman and Mainers of all stripes are crying foul, citing the above-mentioned argument that it's unclear what pain lobsters experience, if any.

What's gotten Mainers even more riled up is that Whole Foods has apparently decided that, in the future, it will carry frozen lobster products only from one processor in Canada, unless other processors and their suppliers start using handling techniques used by that one processor. But Mainers question whether this company's techniques are any more humane than those practiced by the average consumer.

Whole Foods says its decisions were driven by the desire to buy processed lobster from companies that meet standards to "ensure the quality and health of the animal," but the article raises the question of whether the decisions are actually the result of economic considerations, since frozen lobster can be stored and transported more easily.

The lobster controversy is sure to continue for a long time. It's food for thought, to be sure, but something tells me the average seafood lover is going to be more concerned with price, convenience, and taste when choosing a lobster for their meals.

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