Bright-red lobsters? Cobalt blue? Colorful crustaceans serve as scientific tools

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The red, white, and blue lobsters crawling around in pale-green tanks at the biological station here must be the most curiously colored creatures to come out of the sea since the great white whale.

But unlike Ahab's cantankerous cetacean, these colorful Atlantic lobsters - with names like Honky, Maureen, Captain Cook, Fifty-Fifty, and Belinda - are being bred and crossbred to help Canadian researchers develop lobster culture and manage the $90 million Canadian lobster industry.

St. Andrews Biological Station, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is part of the Fisheries Research Branch of the Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Service. It conducts scientific investigations and biological research on behalf of marine and freshwater fisheries.

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From an office overlooking the mouth of the St. Croix River and Passamaquoddy Bay, David Aiken, head of the lab's Invertebrate Physiology Section, explains his interest in a lobster with a cobalt-blue or bright-red shell:

''Twenty years ago only a small area (of Canadian water) was fished for lobster. Now over 90 percent of the area is fished, and we are in a decline phase. Many people would rather fish now and conserve later.''

There is a great need for better management, Dr. Aiken says. ''But we've worked for almost 100 years,'' he continues, '' and know relatively little about managing lobsters. We do know the larvae float to the surface, are dispersed by currents, and those that are not eaten eventually go to the bottom. But after that, we don't know whether the lobsters in our fisheries are moving south to waters off the United States or whether theirs are moving north.''

Since lobsters shed their shells, tagging them is useless. But a lobster with a unique genetic coloration can tell researchers a great deal when it turns up somewhere outside Canadian fisheries, Aiken says, so the testing began. The lab's second goal was to develop successful breeding techniques - and possibly, a tastier lobster - in an artificial situation.

Dr. Aiken says the researchers hesitated at first, fearing they might destroy the lobsters' natural camouflage, ''But the bright colors that stand out to us may not be as bright to predators underwater,'' he says, adding, ''If there is any effect, it is not significant.''

While the most common color is a mottled greenish brown with flecks of orange or red, variations in pigments do occur naturally, and the shells of lobsters without certain enzymes may range from white to yellow, orange, bright-red (rare), or blue (fairly common). But a bright cobalt-blue lobster would create quite a stir wherever caught.

Six years ago, the lab put the word out to local lobstermen that they would pay for any odd-colored lobsters. ''And it's amazing what comes in when people find out you are paying for things,'' Aiken says.

Susan Waddy, a research assistant at the biological lab, takes over from Aiken to show off some of the lab's breeding lobsters in their holding tanks.

Honky, a mature blue lobster, is almost all white, with slight blue tinges on his leg and claw joints. Fifty-Fifty, from Cape Tormentine, New Brunswick, is actually half blue and half red. Captain Cook, a blue lobster, weighs about 25.5 pounds, Miss Waddy says, and is 75 to 100 years old. But bright-cobalt-blue Belinda is the real star. Miss Waddy says it is quite difficult to breed lobsters that color. For the moment, Miss Waddy says, ''We know enough about the red ones for breeding on a large scale. But we don't have enough. We also need a financial commitment from the fishery department to collect them, find space to keep them, breed them, and finally release them.

''The problem with this type of research,'' she says, ''is that we must plan in two-year increments, since lobsters only lay eggs every two years. We're probably talking about three years, including the time to collect the specimens, and it is hard to get any sort of political decision (from the Department of Fisheries) two years in advance.'' In the meantime, Miss Waddy and Dr. Aiken will continue studying every facet of lobster life, including what happens when blue lobsters are cooked. (''They turn pink,'' Miss Waddy says.)

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