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The Courier-Gazette

Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Scientist gets up close with state's top crustacean

by Daniel Dunkle

FRIENDSHIP Scientist Diane Cowan was all business as she worked on the wharf Thursday at the Lobster Science Center on Friendship Long Island.

Her first task was to find some good food for the lobsters she studies. Pulling a trap from the water she found a starfish, some mussels and even a few small fish suitable for the purpose. She used a rock to bust the mussel shells so that the lobsters with banded claws could eat them.

Then, in a nearby work shed, she scanned the lobsters with an electronic device. It beeped like a scanner at the grocery store as it detected an electronic tag in the lobster's walking leg. Information about the lobster appeared on the machine. Fellow scientist Sara Ellis jotted down numbers in a notebook.

Lobster researcher Diane Cowan injects an electronic tag into a lobster's leg Thursday at the Lobster Science Center on Friendship Long Island. The tags allow scientists to track an individual lobster's growth over time. DANIEL DUNKLE

This is how ground-breaking research on Midcoast Maine's most precious resource is done. Cowan, who is president, founder and chief scientist of the Lobster Conservancy, lives on the island with her lobsters. Her mission is to learn more about them, particularly how the adult lobsters reproduce, in hopes that scientific knowledge will help preserve the lobster fishery for all time.

"We are gaining knowledge for the fishery, so we can eat lobsters forever," Cowan said. "Better science can better serve those who make their living catching and selling lobsters."

The setting for her research is a six-acre natural cove on Friendship Long Island formerly used as a commercial lobster pound. Cowan has been on the island for a year, living in the pound keeper's house with no running water. Solar panels on the roof provide the needed electricity.

Here, with the help of Ellis and a varying number of student volunteers, Cowan is doing tests on lobsters that have never been done before.

She tags the lobsters by injecting electronic tags into their legs. This allows researchers to capture lobsters they tagged in the past and record how much they have grown.

Tagging lobsters was not possible in the past because the tags would be lost when the lobsters shed their shells. Now the tags are internal, so they remain after the old shell is cast off. Last year the conservancy injected tags the size of a grain of sand into the lobster's walking leg. Now they use larger tags.

The larger tags were originally designed so people could keep track of pets such as costly prize dogs, Cowan said. Later they were used in salmon. After the salmon die, their tags are sent to the Lobster Conservancy by the National Marine Fisheries Service for use in lobster research.

Diane Cowan of The Lobster Conservancy measures a lobster at the Conservancy's lobster pound on Friendship Lond Island. Daniel Dunkle.

On July 17, Conservancy scientists began a new form of lobster research. They took a sample of the lobster hemolymph, a fluid in the lobster's body that contains blood and lymph. In humans, the blood and lymph systems are separate, but in lobsters the two systems are mixed together and the fluid gathers in the lobster's sinuses.

Once the fluid is drawn, it is sent to a lab where it is studied to see if the lobster's hemolymph contains egg proteins. If it does, the lobster will produce eggs in the future, according to Cowan. This research is a collaboration between the Conservancy and Professor Joseph Kunkel of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

"No one else is doing this work," Cowan said.

This sampling will show the health and reproductive state of the lobster. She said that eventually fishermen will be able to study the lobster's fluids themselves.

Although the conservancy has made a lot of progress, there is still a lot of work to be done. The conservancy is still setting up the center on Friendship Long Island.

Scientists are making shelters of rocks for the lobsters to hide in when they are put into the 6-acre cove. For now the lobsters live in traps next to the wharf.

At first researchers put lobsters in the cove without providing the shelters, but discovered that when lobsters have no shelters they get too much sun and become covered in fuzzy blue algae. Cowan said that, to her, the lobsters did not look happy.

When the lobsters are put in the cove, they will have three lobster villages where the shelters are placed, Cowan said. She said she will control where they live so she can spy on them.

Cowan explained that the center is a bridge between the controlled laboratory environment and research out in the field. At the lobster pound, the scientists can control some things so it has benefits of the laboratory, but the lobsters are in their natural environment, so it has some of the benefits of field research.

The conservancy collaborates with the Island Institute and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and sends reports to the state, to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Cowan writes articles for the Commercial Fisheries News every month and for scientific journals. The conservancy also maintains an Internet site at The scientists also have to write grant proposals. The nonprofit conservancy is funded through grants and donations.


©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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