Can 'Utah lobsters' steal Maine's market out West?

Utah may sound like an unlikely place to find Maine lobsters flourishing.

But two Brigham Young University scientists say their research indicates they could put a million lobsters a year on Western dinner tables - lobsters born and bred in landlocked Utah.

Research associates Rex Infanger and Roger W. Mickelson have spent seven years breeding, hatching, studying, and coddling lobsters at the Aquatic Ecology Laboratory at Brigham Young University.

Today they say they are ready to launch the first recirculated-water lobster farm in the United States.

In 1979, Messrs. Infanger and Mickelson presented a paper at the World Mariculture Society reporting their development of a modular caging system that houses lobsters and adjusts in size through each of the crustaceans' growing stages.

With the container problem apparently solved, the next challenge was to find an environment in which the lobsters could grow.

Mickelson says he first thought lobsters could grow successfully in Great Salt Lake, after the lake water - more than eight times saltier than the ocean - was diluted and its chemistry altered. But these processes made the operation far too expensive. And the lobsters grew much too slowly in Great Salt Lake.

''We thought we had a near-perfect environment,'' Infanger says. ''So when that project failed, a fellow scientist at Davis, Calif., suggested we try recirculated water, with the proper chemical components so the lobsters would think it was sea water.''

In its natural environment off the Maine or Nova Scotia coastline, the average lobster takes from 7 to 10 years to reach a weight of nearly a pound. Infanger and Mickelson have successfully raised 1-pound lobsters in 21 to 30 months with a specially developed diet, by controlling the saltwater mix, and by keeping the water temperatures warmer than the North Atlantic Ocean.

Infanger is vocal in his belief that the lobster-breeding system developed here will make money, because of the ready markets in Salt Lake City and nearby Las Vegas, Nev.

He predicts a lobster hatchery would take six months to set up and 21 months to produce marketable lobsters.

''Time is a needed resource,'' Mickelson smiled, ''since edible lobsters are from 7 to 12 years old. It's evident that, in order to maintain our marketing goals, some of the lobsters going into our initial setup have to be older.''

They say they anticipate the initial cost for such an operation will run between $800,000 and $4 million. But, says Infanger, a 37-percent return on investment is almost a guarantee.

''We don't expect an operation such as we propose will alter our high lobster retail prices a great deal,'' says Mickelson, referring to the $7-per-pound price tag common in the Utah Valley area, ''but it will certainly enhance quality and freshness, and ensure a reliable supply.''

Infanger says the number of lobsters that can be grown each year is limited only by the size of the operation.

''It is our dream to build a ranch consisting of a warehouse-like building containing large tanks of salt water. Inside the tanks would be a system of cages, each holding one lobster - the isolation necessary because of the cannibalistic tendencies of Homarus Americanus,'' says Mickelson.

In a taste test performed in San Diego, Calif., the laboratory grown lobsters developed by Infanger and Mickelson were said to be ''as good or better than the Atlantic Ocean variety.''

Infanger says mass production of lobsters in the laboratory will improve the taste of the seafaring creature, ''in the same way that breeding improved the tough longhorn steer.''

Their proposed plant will use solar power to warm the water in winter or to cool it to 70 degrees during hot Utah summers.

''It may take awhile,'' one expert says, ''but some day, someone like Mickelson and Infanger will come along with the right formula for growing lobsters commercially in inland areas. . . .''

''Maybe these two guys have found it.''

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