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Portland Press Herald

January 24, 2000


The Lobster Lady

Biologist thrilled to be immersed in her favorite subject

A well-bundled Diane Cowan, founder and president of The Lobster Conservancy, heads to her agency's cove off Friendship Long Island.

Friendship Long Island—She travels to the mainland in an open outboard, wrapped in a cocoon of fleece and foul weather gear.

She hauls wood to heat her home and collects water from a nearby well, using an old fish tote to drag sloshing jugs over snow-covered ledges.

And on one frigid afternoon last week she pushed her canoe through the ice floating on a silent tree-ringed cove to check on the reasons she lives here - big old lobsters that may reveal secrets about growth and behavior.

There is nowhere Diane Cowan would rather be. "This is what I wanted to do, always," she says.

Cowan is founder and president of The Lobster Conservancy, an organization whose unique research projects are drawing growing recognition and resources. She and a fellow biologist, Sara Ellis, are gathering lobsters that weigh about 5 pounds apiece to study their growth and behavior in the closest setting possible to natural habitat - the picturesque cove that Cowan has made her home.

Cowan arrives by canoe to check the health of lobsters she is studying in the cove.

She takes a closer look while dissecting a baby specimen for her research.

"The potential that the whole place has is phenomenal," said Ellis, who is executive director of the Conservancy. "No one's ever had a natural laboratory like this."

Cowan and Ellis plan to fill the cove with as many 300 large lobsters, to watch how they act and grow. A partial dam keeps water in at low tide, and a gate will keep the lobsters from escaping.

Cowan paddled out into the cove last week to check on the three that local lobstermen have brought in so far.

"He looks good," she yelled, hauling up a lobster with hand-sized claws. "Hey lobbie, you eat that whole fish?"

The Lobster Conservancy is best known for tracking populations of baby lobsters - some little more than an inch long - that live on Maine beaches, hiding under the rocks around the low-tide line.

Cowan has been counting and tagging baby lobsters on Orrs Island in Casco Bay for about eight years. She and Ellis have trained volunteers to monitor several other lobster nurseries.

A $30,000 challenge grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $60,000 that Cowan and Ellis are raising will pay for Ellis to recruit and train enough volunteers to monitor 25 sites in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts by the end of the year.

Their counts, combined with data from other Maine researchers, are expected to help track predict and manage lobsters, a $47-million-a-year resource, Maine's most valuable fishery.

"They've earned their way with a lot of hard work, good community involvement, and what's turned out to be good science as well," said Bill MacDonald of the Rockland-based Island Institute.

Now Cowan, who worked for Maine's Department of Marine Resources for much of last year, is heading up the Conservancy's newest research project, working with much older, larger lobsters at this island outpost.

A year ago, the Conservancy was given three partially dammed coves in Muscongus Bay that once were used as commercial lobster pounds. Cowan lives in a small house next to the largest one, a six-acre cove surrounded by towering pines that's now known as the Friendship Lobster Laboratory.

A partial dam keeps water in at low tide, and a gate keeps the lobsters from escaping.

Cowan checks the condition of a lobster.

Her arduous lifestyle has only added to a reputation for uncommon dedication that goes way back.

Cowan, who's 39 and has a doctorate, said, "I knew that I wanted to study lobsters since seventh grade."

That's when she wrote her first lobster research paper. Her high school friends in New York signed notes in her yearbook to "the lobster lady."

As a researcher in Massachusetts in the 1980s, Cowan slept on a beach during the days and studied the nocturnal animals at night. She would sit beside a tank of lobsters in a laboratory, watching them fighting or courting, and scribble detailed notes about their complex social behavior.

"I established that they used chemical communication," she said.

Her nighttime research prompted another scientist to call her "the Jane Goodall" of lobsters. It's a comparison that seems even more appropriate now.

Goodall is the English zoologist who revealed the lives of chimpanzees by virtually living among them. Naturally, she's one of Cowan's heroes.

Cowan once saw Goodall in an airport, she said, laughing, and was so overwhelmed that she couldn't talk to her. "I just cried."

Friendship's lobstermen have welcomed the adventurous scientists, helping Cowan and Ellis set up the house and the research pound, and bringing in the first few research subjects: 5-pound lobsters, too large to be sold legally.

Cowan's knowledge of lobsters, and the dedication that drives her to spend a winter without electricity, running water or a furnace have made quick impressions.

"She's staying right there. It's pretty cool down there when the wind blows," said Kevin Benner, a lobsterman. "She told me some stuff that I really didn't ever know, how (lobsters) keep themselves clean and stuff like that. It was pretty interesting."

Cowan has kept the lobsters in cages temporarily, planning to release them in the cove this winter along with any newcomers.

Cowan and Ellis will study the larger animals, trying to answer questions such as how often older lobsters molt and how quickly they grow. That information could change the way the lobster population is measured.

"That's a very important unknown for us. All of the molting frequency studies have been done in labs," said Carl Wilson, who replaced Cowan as lobster biologist at the Department of Marine Resources.

Living at the cove also will let Cowan pursue her primary interest: behavioral science.

She wonders how male and female lobsters will interact here, whether dominant males will establish separate villages, and just how many lobsters can share the cove before they start cannibalizing each other.

She doesn't hide her excitement as she talks about her plans to snorkel and dive in the cove, mapping each lobster's locations, observing and recording their behavior.

"I'll discover things that are important to the fishery that nobody has thought about."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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