A group of California scientists has spent 10 years and about $1 million to prove that delectable American lobsters, which are falling into short supply in nature, can be raised like cattle, but in a lot less space.
"We've satisfied all the biological factors involved," said one of the researchers, Jon C. Van Olst of San Diego State University. "We've reached the point where we're changing from biologists to businessmen."
The next step, he said, is to find an industrial partner and set up a pilot operation that eventually could lead to production of -- for starters -- 1 million pounds a year of one of the world's most highly regarded seafood delights.
If lobsters achieve the rapid growth rate expected under domestication, and if full-scale production could start immediately, commercially grown lobsters could be on dining tables in about 2 1/2 years.
Van Olst said such a lobster industry probably would not result in lower consumer costs but would at least assure a steady supply, especially on the West Coast, which now must receive all of its lobsters by air freight from the East.
The extended study by Van Olst, Dr. Richard F. Brown and James M. Carlberg, financed largely under the University of California Sea Grant program, has proved a number of points:
Lobsters can grow to marketable size of 1 pound almost four times faster in water that is heated to about 72 degrees than in the cold North Atlantic.
For lobsters raised under controlled conditions, as in the "corrals" proposed by the researchers, the enormous mortality rate -- only about one lobster in every 10,000 lives to market size in nature -- can be reduced so that more than 60 percent survive from egg to adult.
The domesticated lobsters, subjected to taste tests by several panels of experts, were at least as good in flavor and texture as their wild brothers. "In fact," Van Olst said, "everybody thought they were fantastic."
Such lobsters could be marketed at sizes of less than a pound, a restriction placed on wild lobsters for conservation reasons. "We could even harvest one-quarter pounders," Van Olst said. "It would create a whole new type of lobster market." As it stands today, American lobsters (homarus americanus), sometimes called Maine lobsters or Eastern lobsters -- and almost always called delicious for their sweet meat -- are reaching consumers in dwindling numbers.
Fishermen in New England simply are not finding them in the quantities they once did. Russian trawlers dragging heavy nets have been blamed for destroying the lobster habitat. Now, even with the 200-mile fishing limit in force, it is expected that it will be years before the habitat can reestablish itself, if it does.
Creating the possibility that the lobster can be domesticated successfully has taken a decade of work by the SDSU scientists and by others at the UC Davis marine lab at Bodega Bay north of San Francisco, plus help from other sources, to solve a long list of biological, engineering and economic problems.
Carlberg said that, at first, a simple transplant of American lobsters from the Atlantic to the Pacific was considered. But it soon was determined that homarus, with his mighty claws, was too well armed and too aggressive to get along with the Pacific natives such as spiny lobsters and certain species of crabs. It was feared that he would soon take over their territories and wipe them out.
So Carlberg, Van Olst and Brown began thinking in terms of creating farms or ranches on which lobsters could be raised without threatening other creatures.
They set up a lab at the base of the pier at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at nearby La Jolla, equipping it with trays and tanks and pipes and pumps to circulate ocean water. They got some egg-bearing female lobsters from a Massachusetts hatchery.
Before long, using temperature controls on some of their tanks, they discovered that, in water heated to a little more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the time between mating and the hatching of eggs dropped from 18 months, as in the wild, to only about 12 months. And they discovered that, in similarly warm water, a lobster could be grown from egg to a weight of 1 or 1 1/2 pounds in 18 months. The same growth takes from five to seven years in the chilly Atlantic.
But the researchers realized that to warm up enough of the ocean and keep it at the required temperature could be so expensive that the entire aquaculture project might as well go down the drain. They found an answer at coastal power generating stations of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. in Carlsbad and Southern California Edison Co. at Redondo Beach, where they were allowed to set up auxiliarly labs.
"We used the thermal effluent from these stations," Carlberg said. "The effluent is seawater drawn into the plants as a coolant. The process heats the water up, and normally it is just piped back into the sea. But it provided us with all the warm water we needed."
The use of such effluents in aquaculture, he said, takes advantage of what otherwise would be a wasted energy source, "and it may partially compensate for any adverse ecological effects of thermal discharge."
To develop models of the structures in which the lobsters would be fed and raised, refinement followed refinement, until the researchers came up with one that resembles a closely packed apartment house several stories high. It is a vatlike container through which oxygenated seawater flows. Cells form structures like vertical trays, with each cell walled by mesh that allows the water to circulate.
Each tray can be lifted clear of the surface for automatic injection of food into each cell. The vat, containing scores of trays made up of hundreds of cells, are efficient in use of space and practically maintenance-free.
After exhaustive experiments, many of them carried on at Bodega Bay and by the Research Center at Foremost Foods, researchers were able to get desired growth results from a formula estimated to cost only 96 cents for each pound of lobster. This, combined with other expenses, makes the production cost of a 1-pound lobster $2.24, if it is done with thermal effluent. A lobster cost $5.14 a pound, Carlberg said.
Since the current retail price of a 1-pounder is about $5.40, the scientists believe production under warm-water conditions is economically feasible.
In addition to work on developing brood stock, controlling molting cycles (which can speed up production), checking disease, and a number of other connected projects, the biologists are experimenting with cross-breeding the American lobster with its European counterpart, homarus gammarus.
They hope the hubride will show such desired characteristics as rapid growth, disease resistance, efficient feed conversion and not quite so much aggressiveness as the American lobster.
But most important of all at the moment, he and Carlberg said, is support from industry, possibly in the form of a partnership.
"As I said, we're changing from biologists to businessmen," Van Olst repeated. "We need help in setting up a pilot, or prototype, plant somewhere on the coast with thermal effluents available.
"Such a plant could produce 10,000 pounds of lobster a year on less than an acre of land.