Will farmed lobster ever replace, or even supplement, wild-caught? Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

At your grocery store fish counter, you can find farmed salmon, farmed shrimp, farmed oysters and farmed mussels, not to mention farmed land-based species like tilapia and trout. Some, like Casco Bay-based Bangs Island Mussels, are raised on ropes or in pens in ocean bays, others in land-based facilities like the salmon farm recently proposed for Millinocket.

One farmed species you won’t find at your local fishmonger? Lobster.

Why not?

The short answer, according to marine biologists, aquaculture and industry experts, is twofold: The many challenges of farming lobster make it uneconomical, among them, it takes as much as seven years for a lobster to reach legal harvest size, about a pound, and in the meantime farmed lobsters must be kept separated to preclude their nasty habit of eating one another. Also, the wild-caught fishery is already meeting the demand. It’s cheaper to get a boat and a license and head out to sea.

At least one outlier, marine ecologist and University of Maine Professor Brian Beal, disagrees. He says Homarus americanus, the Latin name for the species of lobster found in North America and in greatest numbers in Maine, in fact can be farmed economically, and his research of several decades proves it.

“The reason why there is nothing going on,” Beal said, “is that the fishery doesn’t want it to happen. They think it will negatively affect their bottom line. It’s all about money. And they want to keep the money within the fishery.”



“As far as I know, there are no commercial-scale lobster farms in the world that are really bringing product to market,” said Afton Vigue, outreach and development specialist with the Hallowell-based Maine Aquaculture Association.

But the fact that you’ve almost certainly never encountered farmed lobster at the fish shack, at the fishmonger’s, in a bisque, or bound with mayo and enveloped in a toasted hot dog roll isn’t for lack of trying.

As early as 1887, Mr. R.T. Carver attempted to raise lobsters in Carver’s Pond in Vinalhaven. The effort failed “owing to the mud in the pond which killed all the larvae,” according to a 1999 scientific paper published in Marine Fisheries Review on “Homarid Lobster Hatcheries: Their History and Role in Research, Management and Aquaculture.”

For more than a century, aquaculturists in the U.S., Canada and Europe have intermittently attempted to, if not raise lobsters from egg to adult for commercial sale, at least establish lobster hatcheries to give the crustaceans a sheltered start. In the hopes of augmenting natural populations, these hatcheries have typically taken the lobsters through their three larval stages before releasing them – at that point, the size of a penny yet looking and capably swimming like the grownups – to settle on the ocean floor.

Some 125 years ago, a few federally supported lobster hatcheries dotted the New England coast – in Martha’s Vineyard, Woods Hole and, closer to home, at McKown Point in Boothbay Harbor. Their establishment was spurred by the declining population of a once seemingly inexhaustible supply of lobsters. As with cod, overfishing was to blame.


The Boothbay lobster hatchery at McKown Point appeared on postcards of the time. Courtesy of the Boothbay Region Historical Society

The Boothbay fish and lobster hatchery opened in 1905. In its second year, it released 203 million lobster fry, according to a lively paper on the hatchery written by the late marine ecologist Alden Stickney and supplied by the Boothbay Region Historical Society. But the lobster hatchery lasted just 14 years.

“The reasons for this are not clear,” Stickney wrote. “Perhaps the idea of dumping millions of the tiny creatures into a hostile environment seemed hopeless. Almost certainly most, if not all, of them would be gobbled up by hungry predators before they had any chance of adapting to oceanic life or of reaching the relative security of the bottom. But it was a scheme that seemed right in principle, and like many such ideas, however impractical, people want to try them yet again.”

So in the 1930s, the state built its own lobster hatchery next to the federal one in Boothbay, and tried again. And again, the attempt was relatively short-lived. This time, the lobster hatchery closed in 1949. Fishery scientists were increasingly skeptical of its results, Stickney wrote, and the cost of raising the lobster kept going up. Today, the Maine State Aquarium is on the site of the former lobster hatchery.

There have been other attempts, among them that in the 1960s and ’70s of marine biologist John Hughes, director of the Massachusetts Lobster Hatchery and Research Station in Martha’s Vineyard. Hughes managed to grow lobster to market size by feeding them an ample diet of shrimp brine, keeping them warm and snug to ensure steady growth, and housing them apart from one another to curb their cannibalistic tendencies. A New York Times article from 1972 detailed that endeavor. (Interestingly, Hughes selectively bred solid blue lobsters so he’d be able to track the hatchery’s restocking efforts.)

But once you added up the cost of food, heat, space and maintenance, the economics of farming lobster proved unfeasible, according to Richard Wahle, now director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine and a professor in the School of Marine Sciences. “To my knowledge that was the only documented effort to raise lobster from hatchling to market size entirely in captivity,” Wahle said in an email.

At different points in the 1990s, Beal, on a Fulbright scholarship, and Wahle, on a post-doc, both worked on an experimental project at a university in Ireland to raise and release Homarus gammarus, the European species of lobster. According to a summary of that project and similar efforts elsewhere in Europe that was published in the Ices Journal of Marine Science, the work of the hatcheries was (again) not “economically viable.”


The most recent attempt to incubate, nurture and release post-larval lobsters in Maine came in the early 2000s. Local lobstermen, working with the Penobscot East Resource Center, founded a hatchery in Stonington with the hopes of increasing the local waters’ then spotty wild lobster population. At first, things looked promising. From Stonington to Eastport, baby lobster began showing up in ever increasing numbers, “a massive spike,” Wahle said.

“We were all excited,” he said. “We’re making a difference here!” It turned out, though, it wasn’t the impact of the hatchery they were witnessing. It was the response of the wild population to warming waters caused by climate change.

Money was tight. The lobsters were shifting north on their own eight feet (or pereiopods), making the hatchery moot. So the Stonington hatchery, which had relied on techniques developed by Beal, closed down in 2010.


The son of a fishmonger, Beal grew up in Stonington, where he often went lobstering with his “gramp,” jaunts he still talks about with great fondness. Now 65, he has been working since the 1980s to figure out how to farm lobster, applied science he thinks could one day bring jobs and bolster the local economy. (In fact, his real area of research is clams, but he says lobster has “threaded its way” into his work over the years.)

He says his method, developed through decades of trial and error, offers some significant cost-savings. For one, Beal places the growing lobsters in the ocean in compartments that have small, precisely sized holes; the compartments are bundled in cages that float in water columns. No need to feed the growing lobsters because the flowing sea water carries in sea urchins and mussel seeds for them to eat. Reusing the compartments would offer another significant cost-savings, he said.


But Beal’s most unconventional idea, by far, would, if taken up, revolutionize Maine’s lobster industry, as well as the restaurant industry that’s grown up around the crustacean. It would also require a change in the law. Raise the lobsters only to the size of crayfish, he proposes, and bring them to market at that size. Crayfish average some 3-5 inches long, claws included, and it takes roughly 20 to 30 of the “mudbugs,” as Southerners call them, to make up a pound.

Beal has successfully cultured these smaller lobster himself in under three years, he said. The time savings would translate to significant cost savings, and cost has been a key barrier to farmed lobster. In the South, crayfish, a freshwater relative of the lobster, are “a huge industry,” Beal points out. Mainers have their lobster bakes, Texans and Louisianans their crawfish (or crayfish) boils. “Why would someone want to wait seven years?” Beal asks rhetorically.

“People have a vision of what lobster farming is, and their vision is trying to produce an animal that is the same size as the wild-caught one,” he continued. “But damn it, there is a market” for a crayfish-sized Maine lobster, he says with conviction.

Until he can convince others, though, his work is “all published and it sits on a shelf,” he said. “And I know sometime after I’m long gone, someone is going to say, ‘That Beal guy figured this out a long time ago.’ ”


Some experts think we already farm lobsters. Their argument goes like this: Lobstermen feed lobsters (herring, and more recently pogies), and they throw back undersized, oversized and egg-bearing females, too. By design, lobster pots let juveniles show up for a meal, and then exit to return to their teenage lobster lives (dating? gaming?). True, these practices are required by law, but it was lobstermen who advocated for many of the laws in the first place, Wahle said.


“Maybe calling it farming is a stretch, but stewardship, yes,” said Vigue of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “That’s a huge part of the ethics of this fishery – stewardship practices which could be considered animal husbandry, really.”

When lobstermen throw back the egg-laying females, adds Vigue, who herself grew up in a lobster-fishing family in Tenants Harbor, they are careful to avoid throwing them belly forward, which could inadvertently detach the eggs. “There’s a tenderness to it,” she said.

In a telephone interview from his home in Finland, writer Trevor Corson compared such practices with the typical large commercial fishery in which, he said, “airplane-sized trawlers” drag massive nets to capture fish; the destruction of sea floor habitat is often collateral damage.

“With Maine lobster especially, this aquaculture versus wild (distinction) is a little more fuzzy,” said Corson, author of the 2005 “Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fisherman and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of our Favorite Crustacean.” “They are not domesticated animals, but they are very well cared for. They are getting a lot of free lunches.”

More importantly, Corson thinks the question – why aren’t we farming lobster? – is wrong. He reframed it: “Why do we do aquaculture? Why is it necessary?” Mostly, he said, answering himself, we farm seafood because we’ve decimated wild populations. But the conservative, very local modern Maine lobster fishery, he said, is a model.

“If all the other fisheries in the world were done as well as (Maine) lobster,” he said, “we probably wouldn’t need any aquaculture.”



The idea of farming lobster, remains “an unproven concept,” Vigue said. “It’s very much pie in the sky at this point.” But she isn’t ruling it out, either. “We need diversification strategies. Having aquaculture farms of all different types and all different species are going to be important in helping us chart our path forward.”

It’s important to remember that there are plenty of expenses associated with catching lobster in the wild, too: the boat, the license, the fuel, the traps, the salaries of sternmen, gear maintenance, insurance and ever costlier bait. Add to these, the cost of controversial new regulations intended to protect the critically endangered right whale. Though the regulations are on hold for six years, the price of new ropeless gear “would blow the cost of fishing out of the water,” Wahle said, “and if (all) those costs are transferred to the consumer, maybe at some time it would start to make sense to start farming lobster.”

(Getting lobster aquaculture going, were it to happen at all, could well be too late to save the whale; scientists estimate fewer than 340 of them survive. And establishing an aquaculture farm – finding a location, securing funding, getting permits from the state and federal governments and persuading the local community that the farm is an opportunity, not a risk – takes time.)

Don’t expect the state to take the lead. The decision about which seafood species to cultivate is made by the private sector, Maine Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols said, and no one has applied for such a lease in the department’s recent memory. Investors aren’t excited about lobster farming when, as Vigue put it, “At the moment, the product is there, the price is right and it’s meeting the demand.”

Beal’s own research has shifted away from lobster farming. He’s now focused on the impact of ocean acidification and warming waters on clams and soft-shell crabs, issues he has researched for the town of Freeport.

“And that’s because I have to follow the money,” he said. “And if there is no money to do (lobster) aquaculture because nobody has any interest, and you try to get a letter of support from the industry and nobody will write that letter, and the people reading that proposal will say, ‘This guy is out in left field.’ I am not going to embarrass myself.

“But if somebody walks through my door tomorrow and says ‘Brian, let’s do it!’ I’m ready to go.”

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