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Entries in lobsters (4)


No ban for Southern New England lobstering

In an earlier post I mentioned a proposal to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission by its lobster science committee to ban lobstering in Southern New England (i.e. south of Cape Cod) for 5 years to allow the fishery to recover.  Not surprisingly, that proposal has been rejected.  An alternative motion proposing that the commission "consider" either a 75% cut in allowable landings, or a 50% cut, or no cut at all, was approved.  Well hey, thats a nice clear path forward now, isnt it?

These events continue to highlight the tremendous complexity and difficulty of successfully managing modern fisheries.  Its easy to blame the committee for being indecisive, but the truth is that when you're faced with making decisions about someone's livelihood, and they start using phrases like "The moratorium was the bullet in a gun that was pointed to our head," and "A poison pill has been put in front of us", then making decisions purely on the science isn't so easy.  This, then, is annoying to the scientists who work hard to provide the best evidence possible to help make good decisions, only to see their data dismissed or disregarded because of more anthropocentric considerations.  Throw in a healthy dose of regulatory red tape and the poor managers just can't win.

I guess its one of those situations where when everyone is miserable, you probably made the best decision, but it may well mean the slow death of a long-troubled fishery (no matter how rosy picture the fishers want to portray).  One day I expect to look back at this post and fondly remember when we had a lobster fishery south of Cape Cod.  On that day, the shifting baseline strikes again.


Zoiks! A 5 year ban on the Southern New England lobster fishery?

I've been part of research efforts on lobsters in southern New England on and off since 2002.  The fishery is in dire straights due to a range of problems like overfishing and infectious and metabolic diseases likely brought on by a changing climate.  But I was still surpsrised today by this article outlining a proposal to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission by its lobster science committee to suspend the lobster fishery south of Cape Cod for at least 5 years to allow it to recover from these recent dramas.

Quite honestly I can't see the proposal getting approved.  It would kill whats left of the existing fishery and I agree with the lobsterman quoted in the story that the infrastructure would simply go away (they could convert to trawling or dragging for scallops, but that ain't much of a fishery these days either).  Maybe that's what it needs.  Maybe it would never come back.  Maybe there IS no lobster fishery in SNE anymore.   I don't know, but it certainly speaks to the seriousness of the state the fishery has come to.


Simple questions with complex answers: why is a cooked lobster red?

ResearchBlogging.orgSome really simple questions have surprisingly complex answers.  “Why is the sky blue?” ends up being all about differential absorbance of varying wavelengths of electromagnetic radiat… see, there, I’ve already wandered off into jargon land.

And so it is with the question “Why is a cooked lobster red, when a live lobster is not?”.  An odd question, but its exactly that kind of “I wonder why…” moment that has led to some of the greatest discoveries.  Anyway, you can argue that it is not a trivial question; indeed, the name of an entire restaurant franchise depends on the correct color change occurring when you drop a Homarus americanus into a pot of boiling Old Bay.  So what’s going on?

Well, its all about the astaxanthin, (lets call it AXT from now on).  AXT is a carotenoid, which means it’s a fat-soluble pigment that – generally speaking - is red or orange in colour.  Carotenoids give tomatoes their red (lycopene), egg yolks their yellow (lutein), carrots their orange (beta carotene), salmon their pink (canthaxanthin) and televangelists their freakish alien fake tans (but they do offset the glowing white dental veneers ever so nicely, don’t they?).  Lobsters don’t make AXT, they get it from eating their veggies like a good little lobster, because ultimately it’s a plant pigment (plants use it as a sunscreen – but that’s another post for another day!).  In its basic form, AXT is really vivid orange, almost vermilion.  But in lobster shells it doesn’t occur in its basic form; instead it’s mostly bound to a protein, called crustacyanin, which we’ll call CR for short.  AXT binds to CR in much the same way as oxygen binds to the haemoglobin in our blood, except for one big difference.  Unlike oxygen, which fits neatly in a haemoglobin molecule, AXT has to bend to fit into the CR molecule, like one of those freakshow contortionists who fold themselves up in a box.  In bending the AXT molecule to make it fit, the natural colour of astaxanthin changes – it shifts – from red to blue or blue-green.  Historically, this shift has been an interesting mystery to chemists and physicists interested in properties of pigments, because its unusual for the same pigment molecule to have both red and blue forms, as most avid flower gardeners can tell you.  On the right is a picture of the rare all-blue form of the American lobster (read more at the University of Maine website)

Enter Michele Cianci and colleagues from the University of Manchester in England.  These clever folks showed in 2002 that the colour change – technically called the bathochromic shift – is a result of the structure of the CR molecule and the way it flexes the AXT molecule like a loaded spring.  This is where the simple question yields the really complex answer.  Get a load of this phrase from their abstract:  “Recently, the innovative use of softer x-rays and xenon derivatization yielded the three dimensional structure of the A1 apoprotein subunit of CR, confirming it as a member of the lipocalin superfamily. That work provided the molecular replacement search model for a crystal form of the beta-CR holo complex, that is an A1 with A3 subunit assembly including two bound AXT molecules. We have thereby determined the structure of the A3 molecule de novo”.  Ex-squeeze me baking powder?

Yes, well, that's all well and good, but it doesn’t answer the simple question of why they go red when you cook them, does it?  Bear with me…  When next you are at the grocery store, take a look in the live lobster tank and you’ll see that they don't look like the handsome all-blue fellow above; they tend to be a mosaic of colours like orange, yellow, cream, green, blue and brown.  This patchwork arises from varying amounts of free and bound AXT in different layers of the shell, and some other factors like how thick the shell is, and whether the AXT is at the surface or in a deeper layer.  If you go ahead and buy one of these lobsters and drop it into a pot of boiling water, little happens to the AXT because it’s heat stable.  But the protein CR, on the other hand, is not.  Like most proteins, it loses its structure when you apply intense heat, unfolding like a jack-in-the-box, and flinging off the AXT in the process.  Liberated from its oppressive bathochromic bonds, the AXT reverts to its normal colour – intense orange-red.  Et puis, vous voila! – blue/green lobsters turn red when you cook them.

Much the same process happens in shrimp and crabs when you cook them too, but it was worked out for lobsters first because they only have one carotenoid – AXT – whereas other crustaceans had other carotenoids that complicated the picture even further.

PS - some genetic rarities give us all sorts of lobster colour patterns like the all-blue one shown above, but my favourite is the half-and-half.  The first time I saw one of these, I thought it was someone having a joke at my expense, but they're the real deal!  How it happens is still a mystery, but there's probably something wrong with the way they express CR on one side of the body.  Picture from National Geographic.

Tip of the Mackintosh hat to @AboutMarineLife on Twitter, for inspiration.

Cianci M, Rizkallah PJ, Olczak A, Raftery J, Chayen NE, Zagalsky PF, &; Helliwell JR (2002). The molecular basis of the coloration mechanism in lobster shell: beta-crustacyanin at 3.2-A resolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99 (15), 9795-800 PMID: 12119396


The ghost of fishers past

The folks you see out on their boats on the bay are not the only ones fishing; those who came before them still get a slice of the action, as this recent article about the retrieval of "ghost gear" from the Chesapeake Bay illustrates.  In many trap-based fishing industries, like lobsters and crabs, a significant number of traps are lost during the course of regular fishing efforts.  In addition, when a fishery turns bad, as happened in the Long Island Sound lobster fishery in 1999, some fishers cut their losses, and their marker floats, quit the fishery and just leave their gear where it is on the bottom of the bay.

The problem is, ghost gear like this keeps on fishing, long after the fisher has moved on to other endeavours.  The design of the trap continues to attract animals, even without bait, because the trap is basically a refuge or cave.  Those that enter are unable to leave and as they die they may act as bait to attract yet more animals to feed on their body.  In this way, the trap becomes a sort of "biomass black hole", sucking in animals from all around, for as long as the trap holds together.  Nets can ghost fish too, especially gillnets or any kind of trawl that can trap fish or strangle a reef

We used to trawl up ghost lobster gear all the time when I was working in Long Island Sound.  Indeed, few days on the water went by without snagging someone's old gear at some point, which speaks to the density of gear that's out there in some inshore waters.  I'm glad the fishers and the resource management agencies are working together to address the problem, because its one of those awful chronic out-of-sight, out-of-mind issues that can erode a fishery despite everyone's best efforts to manage things properly.  If you find ghost gear, call your local DEP or DEC, even the EPA, and let them know so they can come and retrieve it.

Picture of ghost gear on a coral reef from NOAA