Saturday, February 21, 2004

Hercules, a mere mortal

By MEREDITH GOAD, Portland Press Herald Writer

Copyright © 2004 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc. Staff photo by John Patriquin

Hercules, the 14-pound lobster rescued by schoolchildren in Port Angeles, Wash., and shipped home to Maine, was found dead in his crate Friday morning. Scientists estimate he was about 30.

It's likely the lobster succumbed to the trauma of being shipped to the West Coast, where he was held in a supermarket lobster tank with a $200 price tag on his head, then shipped back across country in an attempt to give him his freedom.

Hercules also had an injury on his tail that may have contributed to his death, according to Diane Cowan, a scientist who heads The Lobster Conservancy in Friendship, where Hercules was being rehabilitated.

"It's just a crack, and normally a lobster would survive this just fine," Cowan said in an interview before his death.

Cowan had planned to let the crack heal, then attach a sonar tag to the lobster and set him free within the next week or two so she could track his movements. But when she checked his crate Friday morning, he had died.

Cowan told friends in an e-mail Friday "don't be too sad," because the lobster did not die in vain. Hercules called attention to legislation that would protect large, brood stock lobsters like himself, she said, and he educated people about their important role in rejuvenating the lobster population.

But she said that Hercules probably would be her last attempt at crustacean salvation.

Watching emancipated supermarket lobsters being released into the wild by well-meaning Good Samaritans and TV crews has become something of a visual cliche in Maine. Cowan has always been skeptical of how the lobsters actually fare in their newfound freedom.

"It just came out of a cooler, it's going to be in shock," she said. "I said 'This is a feel-good thing, but the thing's going to die.' "

Shipping is hard on lobsters - they always vomit in the container, Cowan said - and no one knows how well fed and cared for they are in the supermarkets where they end up. When they are returned to New England, unless they are cushioned with towels and kept cool and moist, it's unlikely they'll make the journey back alive.

Cowan decided to help free some lobsters, then track them to see if they survive the shipping, handling and shock of being plunged back into the Atlantic. She has nursed several of the creatures over the past few years, but only one has lived.

Now Hercules, too, sleeps with the fishes.

Born around the time Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency, Hercules was just a toddler when a squeamish Diane Keaton and Woody Allen filmed the famous boiling-the-lobster scene in "Annie Hall."

By the time he was returned to Maine, he was in his sexual prime. Larger lobsters like Hercules - and especially the females they court - are important brood stock that help keep the lobster population growing, Cowan said. They generally live in deeper waters offshore.

"We've shown that larger lobsters travel further," she said. "The lobsters from Friendship, Maine, have gone as far as Massachusetts. By traveling farther while they're brooding their eggs, they release their larvae farther away, so that's seeding the population over a broad geographical range."

Hercules probably came from federal or Canadian waters offshore, Cowan said, because oversized lobsters are protected by size limits in the lobster management area that covers Maine, New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts.

The offshore lobster fishery began in the 1950s, Cowan said, and used to account for just 10 percent of the harvest. But the market for these lobsters is growing, and today there are companies that focus solely on catching them using bigger traps.

"The smallest lobster they usually bring in is, like, a five-pounder," Cowan said.

The lobsters usually end up at processors because they are considered too big for the plate and the cooking pot. Occasionally, one winds up as an oddity at a supermarket fish counter.

A bill being considered by the Maine Legislature's Marine Resources Committee would make it illegal to transport oversized lobsters like Hercules through Maine. According to the latest newsletter of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, the bill has its origins in the turf wars going on between American and Canadian lobstermen who set their traps in the "gray zone" - 110 square miles of fishing grounds that lie between Down East Maine and Canada and is claimed by both countries. Maine lobstermen fishing in the gray zone find it hard to swallow that they have to toss back the jumbo lobsters that their Canadian counterparts are allowed to keep, then ship to the United States by way of Maine.

Calls to officials of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and legislators were not returned Friday.

Cowan views the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Anne Perry, D-Calais, as a way to help protect hefty lobsters so they can live to breed. Fourteen-pound lobsters like Hercules, though freakishly large to the average diner and with claws strong enough to break a finger, are actually fairly common. The largest lobster on record was caught in the 1950s off the coast of New Jersey and weighed in at 45 pounds.

"A 40-pound lobster you could put on the roof of your car and it would hang over the trunk and the hood," Cowan said. "I've seen a 20-pound lobster, and instead of your plate, it fills the table."

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: