Hughes’s laboratory is a small shed in an inlet near Oak Bluffs. There’s a tree growing in the middle of the ocean near where the suction pump for Hughes’s tanks lies underwater. Everything grows in this place.
“Eventually,”Hughes says, “there is going to be a demand for 80 million pounds of lobster. There is no way that the commercial industry is going to come up with that in one year. We’ve got to start to farm the sea, rather than mining it the way we have been.”
Many lobstermen are skeptical, partly because a large-scale commercial lobster farm would put some of them out of business. “That’s a big job,”said one. “It’s expensive and it’s time consuming. I don’t think any company would go for it.”
But Hughes has managed to breed lobsters with a greater rate of success than the sea has. After birth, lobsters go through the molting cycle until they reach the fourth stage of development, when they become heavy enough to sink to the bottom and hide themselves. While in the larval stage, however, they are easy prey for predators, currents and each other as they float on the surface.
When the two boats he has an arrangement with bring him egg-bearing females, Hughes nurtures the eggs to hatching and then separates the larvae into groups of 3000 in holding tanks. “We have a better than 50-percent success record at getting the lobsters safely into the fourth stage of development,”Hughes says. The natural rate is generally held to be less than one-tenth of one percent.
In the hatchery, which was founded in 1939 but not established until nearly 20 years later, Hughes has found that lobsters thrive in warm water. At 75 degrees Fahrenheit, Hughes has found, the lobsters develop faster and bigger than they do in the wild.
With its success in breeding lobsters, the hatchery has produced some offbeat results. Since lobsters are continually molting, it is hard to tag them so you can track and study their migratory patterns. “So,”says Hughes, “we developed a natural tag.”Through cross-breeding, the hatchery now owns lobsters that seem to have migrated from from Oz. Some are sky blue. Others are bright red. Still others are half-and-half and look like misnumbered hobby kits. “We’ve been working at breeding,”Hughes says. “But also for lobsters which are more disease-resistant and which have bigger body parts.”
Hughes’s larger goal, however, is aquaculture on a grand scale, using systems similar to those he has developed to breed his lobsters. “Industry may have to invest in it,”he says. “They’ll develop the systems and we’ll use them for all the species if we can.”
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All of which may well be much ado about something that is really attractive only when it’s leaning on a steak or a salad. One man fishes for them. Another one grows them. Decapod crustaceans. A fairy princess will kiss one and it will turn into a handsome toad.
On the subject of myths, one of the larger lobster myths is that only two-clawed lobsters are worth the money. “A select lobster (two claws) has less meat than than a ‘cull’lobster (one claw) has. And a ‘pistol’lobster has more than either of them, without having any claws,”Hughes says. “The weight is all in the tail anyway.”
But there is a serious flaw in this argument. It has to do with human perceptions. Just as something as ugly as a lobster could not taste that good, a lobster with less than his full natural array is perceived as a failure. Throw him back, the comic in us says, and serve us the winner.