First a word about lobsters and North Atlantic lobsters in particular which are sold at St. Paul Fish Company. Lobsters are among the longest living creatures on earth, some reaching 50 years in age or even much longer. How can you tell how old a lobster is? There is really no way to tell how old a lobster is. Most North American live lobsters that you see in fish markets, grocery stores, or at a restaurant are at least 5-7 years old and weigh about 1-2 pounds. Lobsters can however be much bigger and much older. The largest lobster ever caught was over 44 lbs. and about 3 1/2 to 4 feet long from the tip of their claws to the end of its tail. The one pictured here (top right) was over caught off Nova Scotia is over 27 lbs. Lobsters are also the largest of marine crustaceans (no inner skeleton exterior structure only) and extremely territorial which makes them very difficult to farm. Most lobsters are a greenish brown color when caught. They can also be yellow, or white, or even more than one color (see the rare dual lobster left). A lobster of any color (except white) will turn red when you cook it. The North Atlantic lobsters (homarus americanus – homard for short) habitat is the cold rocky and weedy ocean bottoms from the shallow coastal waters to the continental shelf. Northern European lobster also homard’s are similar in size but the typically have a darker color, often blue, and the claws may be slightly smaller. All lobster turn a bright orange-red when cooked.
Spiny Lobster or Rock lobsters AKA “langouste” (scientific name – Palinuridae – pictured right) are found in the rest of the world. There are over 60 varieties, many harvested and sold as frozen tails. Spiny lobsters have no claws, have a harder shell and have very large antenna. Spiny lobster’s tails are typically from warmer waters. Because spiny lobsters have no claws, most of the meat is contained in the lobster tail and thus are most often sold live locally or otherwise commercially harvested just for just the lobster tail. The larger tails seen on restaurant menus are often from frozen spiny or rock lobsters. The two main regions that support spiny lobsters in the northern hemisphere are the California coast and in the Caribbean.
Lobsters grow by molting — that means, when they want to grow bigger, they will lose their outside shell and grow a new, bigger shell. After molting the lobsters eat veraciously often consuming their own shell. In a 6-8 weeks months their new shell, which is 15 to 20% larger than before, will be hard enough to offer more protection from predators. When young (first 5-7 years) this happens many times per year, and then as they get older it will only happen once a year for females and often twice for males. As they become more mature and larger in size this process only happens every 3-4 years. The molt for more mature lobsters typically is in the summer months and their new shells start hardening immediately. When they first molt to grow, the new shell is very soft but will soon get harder again. Lobsters are most vulnerable during the molting stage so they often will retreat to safe areas until their shell hardens. If caught before the shell is fully hardened these lobsters are sold as “soft shells” and are usually sold at a discount. This is also the mating season. Female lobsters through chemical communication release a pheromone which the male’s sense with their antennae that lets them know there is female nearby that is ready to mate. The male deposits it’s sperm in the female’s “seminal receptacle” where it is stored up to 15 months. At the appropriate time her eggs (while still in the lobster known as roe) are released (10,000 – 100,000) and passed by the seminal receptacle and fertilized. It’s here the eggs attach to the underside of the tail and brood for 9-11 months. When the eggs are ready for hatching the female lifts her abdomen (tail) and 1000’s of larvae, a few milometers in size, float to the surface. In three to twelve weeks, in these warm summer waters the larvae molt several times until them become large enough (11-14) milometers to find their way to the ocean floor. For the next several years the lobsters spend much of their life hiding and only coming out at night to feed and molt. Once the hit about 60 mm they are fully developed and considered mature.
How do you tell the difference between a male and female lobster? Lobsters have feathery appendages called swimmerets, or pleopods, underneath their tail. These swimmerets help a lobsters swim and are also where a female lobster carries her eggs. Swimmerets also can clue you in to the sex of a lobster. The first pair of swimmerets (the pair closest to the head) are soft on a female, but hard and bony on a male. Also, the female has a rectangular shield between her second pair of walking legs, which she uses to store sperm after mating with a male. This is where the male inserts those hard swimmerets during mating, releasing sperm that the female stores and later uses to fertilize her eggs.
Lobsters will push and shove each other and even fight for territory in the wild. In very confined environments (lobster tanks) they will even become cannibalistic. The bands on their claws are not only to protect the human handlers but to keep them eating each other in lobster tanks. North Atlantic lobsters have two very powerful claws. They are used to feed as well as for protection. One claw is sharp and used for cutting, usually a little more pointed and the other is more bulky and thicker and used for crushing. Lobsters that have their heavy (“crusher”) claw on the right are considered “right-handed” and the others are “left-handed”. Some lobsters are ambidextrous, they usually favor the claw that is the largest. If lobsters loose claws, eyes and antennae through accident or self-defense, they are able to regenerate them. If another lobster seizes their claw, they may drop their claw to escape. Sometimes, the more aggressive lobster will tear the claw of the opponent off. A lobster with a claw missing is called and sold as a cull, with no claws they are called a bullet or dummies and will have a much harder time surviving in the wild. It takes about 3 to 4 molt cycles for the claw to grow back to full size. If caught smaller lobsters and mother lobsters with eggs are put back into the waters.
Lobsters like to eat crabs, clams, mussels, starfish, smaller fish, and sometimes even other lobsters. A lobster does have teeth — but they are not in its mouth, they are in its stomach. The food is chewed in the stomach between by what look like three molars. These are called the “gastric mill”. Today we tend to think of lobster as a delicacy, but in New England up to the 1890s it was actually a food for the poor because there was so much of it to be caught. Lobster at one time was used as bate to catch cod. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that lobsters became a real commercial product. In Canada, lobsters are now a staple of the fishery.