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Tuesday, April 23, 1996, Volume 30, Number 56


Orr's Island: Lobster researcher Diane Cowan often spends the early morning hours in the mud at Lowell's Cove in Harpswell, studying baby lobsters. Cowan found baby lobsters -- one of which is pictured below -- in the intertidal zone and is devoted to learning more about them.
By Lisa Duchene
Staff Writer
©Copyright 1996

Used with permission.

HARPSWELL - One day, as lobster researcher Diane Cowan wandered Lowell's Cove hoping to find a good place to kayak, she stumbled upon her as-yet most important discovery.

She noticed two children on the beach turning over rocks. "I said, 'Hey, what are you kids doing,' and they said 'we're playing with the baby lobsters.' . . .  I flipped out because I know as a biologist studying lobsters that there weren't supposed to be baby lobsters on the beach."

That discovery led Cowan to her life as it is today: researching lobster nursery grounds and moving here to more easily study them.

During low tide at Lowell's Cove, Cowan's bright orange gloves and blue wind pants stand out against the dark green mounds of seaweed, dark brown muck and the gray pools of sea water.

"Small green crab. Limpet. No lobs," Cowan said into a tape recorder one morning last week as she looked under a rock. "Barnacle spat. Coral. Algae. Small green crabs. No lobs."

About 10 times a month she comes here, working specific strips of squares called quadrants. She makes careful notes about what she sees and if she sees a baby lobster that she hasn't tagged, injects a teeny metal tag into its muscle tissue.

This is the fourth year she has studied the cove. "Last April, this was just full of lobsters. This April, they're not there, but the little guys move around."

Last fall, she began a two-part study of nursery grounds all over Harpswell. Wednesday night, she is scheduled to present the findings from the first part -- designed to find out where the baby lobsters are in Harpswell --at 7 p.m. at the Orr's Island School House.

Thirty-five volunteers combed 12 coves last fall and found lobsters at eight of them, along a distinct line running across the two fingers of this coastal town.

Her conclusion is that baby lobsters are found in places that are most exposed to the open ocean.

The second part of the study is to recruit volunteers and lobstermen to study the life cycle of the lobster, "egg to plate," all over Harpswell, using tagging, said Cowan.

"If you take one little chunk of some place and figure out what's going on, then you're going to know something valuable. That's never been done and why not?," said Cowan, whose Harpswell studies fit into a life devoted to learning about lobsters to preserve the traditional trap fishery.

Every year, Cowan, 35, celebrates May 18 -- the day she officially began studying lobsters in 1983 -- as her personal new year. It's the time when she reflects on where her lobster research has been and where it's going.

Her interest in lobsters began when she was a seventh-grader in New York looking for a marine animal for a school assignment.

"I would always find these obscure beasts photographed once," said Cowan. So she decided to pick a creature that was well-known and had a lot written about it. There seemed to be a lot of information about lobsters.

"It just somehow infected me. I don't know why," said Cowan.

By the time she was in high school, people were signing her yearbook "to the lobster lady." She learned to scuba dive and once she got her driver's license, spent her weekends travelling to the Connecticut seashore and diving for lobsters.

She graduated in 1992 with a Ph.D. from the Marine Biological Laboratory, a Woods Hole research center associated with Boston University, then taught at Bates College in Lewiston.

It was during those teaching years that she stumbled upon baby lobsters on the beach, decided the cove could be an ideal outdoor classroom adn launched her long-term study of the baby lobsters at Lowell's Cove and the adjacent Flag Cove.
"Every time I go, I see something I've never seen before that has never been seen before. There's just a million discoveries," said Cowan, who said she approaches her research with an open mind and eyes, aloowing herself to stumble onto finds.

Cowan found baby lobsters in the intertidal zone all over the New England coast, and knows it has a role in preserving the catch and the lobstering way of life.

In an arena in which lobster researchers are trying to figure out what record-high catches mean and there are a lot of worries about overfishing, Cowan believes her work shows that lobsters are resilient, but also vulnerable.

"They're able to cope with more than what we gave them credit for, but there are limits," she said.

Some portion of the lobster population spends time exposed at low tide, meaning baby lobsters are vulnerable to predators such as raccoons and to pollution draining onto the beaches, said Cowan.

"No one's looking at that stuff and I'm looking at that stuff and that's why I'm here, I think," she said.

©2003 The Lobster Conservancy.
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