The mouth waters -- fresh lobster for $2.24 a pound. This seafood delicacy could be produced in an artificial environment at that low cost, say scientists at the University of California's bodega Marine Laboratory here. The wholesale price of lobster from the sea on the West Coast is at least $5 a pound.
Indeed, the feasibility of lobster "farming" -- raising lobster in tanks of water where growth and reporduction can be regulated for maximum yield -- has been studied at the Bodega Marine Laboratory and other academic research institutes for years. Now the consistently positive results have pushed the concept beyond the laboratory stage.
In recent months private companies on the East and West coasts of the United States have begun building two pilot plants to produce lobster.
If successful, these experimental ventures could pave the way for full-scale commercial lobster farming, augmenting a diminishing natural world supply and thus helping to moderate rapidly rising prices for lobster.
Moreover, domesticating the lobster is seen as an important first step to farming other forms of sea life and increasing the world's overall food supply.
"Lobster is hardy and tough, so it was a good research animal to begin with," notes Douglas Conklin, associate director of the Aqua culture Program at the Bodega Marine Laboratory. "And as people see a commercial lobster industry established, they will modify the procedures and use them with other tupes of sea life," he predicts.
Aquatic foods already supply about 13 percent of the animal protein consumed worldwide, and their contribution could be greater with the high yields and sustained production possible with commercial farming, Dr. conkin says.
On the East Coast, Sanders Associates, Inc., of Nashua, New Hampshire, is building a pilot plant to produce lobster. Sanders designed and developed the system for handling and raising the lobsters. It has agreed to license the technology to amfac Foods after testing the facility for 2 1/2 years to establish whether or not a larger plant could be profitable.
Southern California Edison Company also is building a pilot plant. The West Coast utility is working with Aquaculture Enterprises, a private company, to determine the commercial feasibility of lobster farming.
Lobsters grow faster in warmer water, so the utility has always viewed its thermal effluent from generating electricity as a potentially useful resource in lobster farming. Ian Straughan, supervisor of research in resource conservation for Southern California edison, says the utility may decide to sell its warm waste water to an outside lobster producer, or may go into the lobster business itself. "It depends on what we find out in the next year of study," Mr. Straughan says.
Those who have studied lobster farming agree that one of the major hurdles is determining what to feed the animals.
Paul Chapman of Sanders associates says food represents 35 to 40 percent of the cost of raising lobsters. Developing a healthy routine diet for lobsters that is not too expensive "will be the deciding factor" in how economically attractive the lobster business becomes, he assesses.
Dr. Conklin of the Bodega Marine Laboratory has developed in recent months a pellet feed for lobsters -- he calls it "lobster chow" -- that is comprised mostly of artificial ingredients. A natural feed is seen as presenting problems because its cost would depend on volatile commodity prices, thus adding to the risk of lobster farming.
Mr. chapman of Sanders Associates predicts a fledging domesticated lobster industry within three to five years, and he expects the new supply of sea food to be sold through restaurant chains not on supermarket shelves.
Dr. Conklin also expects lobster production within five years.