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Sympathetic Customers Save Giant Lobsters From the Pot

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page E01

Jeff Grolig ordered a "large lobster" for the tank of his Potomac seafood store three weeks ago, confident he could sell it quickly, and for a handsome profit.

What he got from the seafood distributor was a gargantuan lobster and an outpouring of sentiment from customers who felt sorry for the 15-pound animal crammed into a tank alongside an assortment of its two- and three-pound cousins.

Jeff Grolig delivers 15-pound Donovan to Kurt Friesland of J.J. McDonnell & Co. in Jessup. If the lobster survives, his journey has just begun. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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Moving Off the Docks In January, Dina ElBoghdady explored the ways technology is transforming a once- parochial seafood business into a global enterprise.
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Whole Foods, Costco Bypass Distributors and Go Straight to the Source of the Catch (The Washington Post, Jan 10, 2005)
Rule Requires Grocery Stores To Spell Out Seafood's Origin (The Washington Post, Jan 10, 2005)
_____Online Extras_____
Staff writer Dina ElBoghdady narrates a gallery of photos of the Jessup seafood market.
View the photo gallery
Interactive Graphic: A Salmon's Journey -- How an Atlantic salmon raised in an isolated area of Scotland made its way to a grocery store in Sterling last month.

After Grolig spent days kibitzing over the ethics of his trade, the oversized crustacean, estimated to be between 35 and 40 years old, yesterday began a 400-mile journey back to its home waters off the coast of Massachusetts. One of the lobster's admirers purchased it for $150 -- about $30 more than Grolig paid the wholesaler -- and he agreed to coordinate the animal's liberation with help from his friends.

"I've never had a lobster that big at this store before, and I won't have one that big again," said Grolig, owner of River Falls Seafood Co. and a 21-year veteran of the seafood trade. "About 30 percent of the people who saw him in the tank expressed concern. A few customers were really unhappy. . . . I'm really torn about the whole idea of these big lobsters. Does it really make sense to sell them?"

The question is a common one in restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets, where the meat is typically DOA. Lobsters are the exception, an animal consumers frequently come in contact with before it is killed and prepared for the platter. The large, old ones in particular inspire animal rights activists and seafood lovers alike to come to their rescue. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals receives so many calls on the topic each week that it launched Lobsterlib.com, with advice on the safest way to transport the animals back to the wild.

But sometimes even the best of intentions backfire. From the business perspective, returning lobsters to the wild could help spur demand for them, said Joe Stofer, seafood manager for Whole Foods Market Inc. in the mid-Atlantic region.

"If a store keeps selling these big lobsters to people who take them out and let them go, the merchants simply think they're selling a lot of lobsters," Stofer said. "So they buy more."

And the rescues do not always work. Earlier this month, 23-pound Bubba attracted national attention when shoppers spotted him in a tank at a Pittsburgh seafood market and urged the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium to intervene. Bubba ended up in a quarantined tank at the zoo on March 1. But he died less than 24 hours later, presumably from the stress of being moved many times.

"Trying to save these really large lobsters that way is kind of a misguided thing to do because so many of them die anyway," said Diane Cowan, a senior scientist at the Lobster Conservancy, a nonprofit group in Maine that studies lobster fisheries. "If you really want to protect these animals, you should not harvest them in the first place."

Grolig said he never wanted a lobster as big as the one his niece affectionately calls Donovan. He wanted an eight- to 10-pounder. That size tends to sell -- quickly.

But add five pounds and it becomes a curiosity, he said.

Initially, Grolig thought Donovan's "spectator appeal" might draw customers to the store. However, the feedback turned a bit negative, and even he started feeling sorry for the animal. By the time the customer bought it for release, he was relieved.

The customer, who asked not to be named, wanted Grolig to keep the lobster in his tank at the store. He declined. Keeping the animal meant feeding it, which would create waste and throw off the bacteria levels in the tank. Grolig suggested sending it to Ocean City but learned that the waters along the shore were too shallow. He considered shipping it via FedEx to his in-laws in Maine, where fishermen are banned from keeping large lobsters. But he feared the animal would die en route.

That's when he contacted his seafood supplier, Kurt Friesland at J.J. McDonnell & Co. in Jessup, where Donovan has been since yesterday morning. The plan: Wrap the lobster in 20 pounds of seaweed and drive him today to a trucking company in Baltimore, which will transport him to Boston. He'll be kept at a seafood warehouse until lobster wholesaler John Bump arrives on Friday.

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