Every year, a few lobstermen find a freak when they haul in their traps--a lobster with a shell as blue as the Maine sky.
And they’ll often call Sam Chapman, the godfather of blue lobsters in Maine. He has about 400, ranging in hue from powder blue to electric cobalt blue to “a blue so dark it’s almost black.”
Most lobsters plucked from the Atlantic’s icy waters are a mottled mixture of green, red and brown. They turn bright red when they’re cooked.
Blue lobsters are genetic mutations in which the crustacean’s blue gene is dominant. About one in every 3 million or 4 million lobsters caught along the Maine coast is blue, Chapman said.
“Lobsters have genes for the production of red, yellow and blue,” said Chapman, an aquaculture specialist at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center. “If the gene for red and the gene for yellow aren’t functioning, you get a blue lobster.”
The disorder also produces lobsters with yellow shells, red shells and even yellow with black spots, known as calico lobsters.
Chapman has been raising blue lobsters since 1982 in a study to determine if Maine’s fishing grounds can be restocked with lobsters raised in hatcheries.
Hatcheries have operated in Maine off and on for decades. But Chapman said no one has ever proved that restocking coastal waters increases the number of lobsters in the ocean.
Part of the problem is that hatchery-raised lobsters are released when they are the size of a thumbnail and hard to tag for later identification.
So with the blue lobster, Chapman said, “what you have is essentially a colored tag.”
“You can do all of the plot sampling and research that you want, but the proof of the pudding in this whole program is how many blue lobsters show up in traps” over the next five years, he said.
It took from 1982--when he collected Amanda and Vinnie, the first two blues he bred--until the summer of 1988 to raise enough blue lobsters to get started.
In June and July 1988, Chapman and another University of Maine researcher released 5,600 blue lobsters off Boothbay Harbor. In 1989, they sampled the area and found two blues. But sampling this past summer turned up none.
Chapman released 1,100 blue lobsters in Pemaquid Harbor this past summer and 1,500 in Cutler Harbor.
He thinks the latest restocking will be easier to monitor because Pemaquid and Cutler are sheltered harbors. “My feeling is somewhere between three and four years after you let them go, they’ll start showing up in traps,” Chapman said.
He also has kept about 375 blue lobsters for behavior testing. They are living in rows of cages in his laboratory, each 2 years old, 3 to 4 inches long and bright blue.
In addition, Chapman has older, larger blues that have been donated over the years by lobstermen. He fetched two for a photographer--a 1 3/8 pounder that is 8 years old and a 2 1/2 pounder that is about 10 years old.
“An obvious question is do blue lobsters survive at the same rate as regular lobsters do? What we need to know is, do they behave the same when they’re introduced to the ocean bottom?” he said.
To answer those questions, he has begun studies to see how blue lobsters behave when introduced to different environments with and without the presence of predators.
David Dow, a former lobsterman and executive director of the Maine Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, thinks Chapman’s work could be important for the future of the industry.
“We don’t know how long our production is going to last,” he said. “Ten years down the road, we might not have as large a supply. Or 10 years down the road, if we do our homework and expand our markets, we might want to increase our supply.”
Anthony D’Agostino, director of the Montauk Marine Science Institute on Long Island, said Chapman’s project seemed “worthwhile.”
“I just wonder if he has enough funding to do it properly,” said D’Agostino, who has been studying lobsters since 1975.
Chapman’s funding is slight--he started with $7,000 from the Lobster Advisory Council and has kept going with a yearly stipend of about $600 from the Maine Lobstermen’s Assn.
For all Chapman’s work, however, he can’t answer the key question on every lobster-lover’s mind--do blues taste the same?
“Everyone asks that question,” Chapman said. “The problem is we’ve never had enough to be able to eat any. So I don’t know. I’ve never eaten a blue lobster.”