The lobster clause
Donna Scott shops at the Brownsburg Marsh nearly every day. On each trip to the supermarket, she scans the lobster tank in the meat department. She notices the occasional dead lobster in the tank. She witnesses how many are sold and how quickly they’re replaced. But one thing she has never seen is feeding time. Appalled by the thought of the crustaceans being starved to death before their ultimate boiling-water demise, she has repeatedly voiced her concerns to Marsh employees.
One meat manager shrugged her off with a “there’s not much you can do” attitude about what he clearly considers food rather than living creatures. Another complaint and another employee resulted in a similar response: The lobsters were just going to be sold and eaten, so what did it matter? “One manager told me they weren’t allowed to feed them because if they did, it would be considered farming,” Scott recalls. “I realize they’re sold for food, but until then, they should have good treatment. I don’t like to see anything suffer.”
Marsh Business Manager Gene Deno bristles at the accusation, going into extensive detail about the self-contained filtration system Marsh incorporates to keep the water clean and the lobsters in good shape. Filters are changed monthly. Charcoal is routinely replaced every six months. Appropriate salt levels are maintained. Tanks are never completely drained and gravel is never removed or cleaned unless a problem has occurred. “That’s because of the bacteria,” he elaborates, explaining that bacteria generated by the bio-wheel provide sustenance for the lobsters.
Noam Mohr, of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that’s nonsense. Lobsters are carnivores, consuming up to 100 different kinds of animals such as crab, mussels, clams, marine worms, sea urchins, shrimp and small fish. However, if resources are scarce, these underwater scavengers might turn to plants.
Other forms of torture
Despite their foraging nature, only captive lobsters are known to be cannibalistic. Preferring to lead somewhat solitary lives, these prehistoric “sea insects” from the Jurassic period become aggressive and territorial when forced to live in close proximity. Disliking the close quarters and overcrowding of supermarket storage tanks, they often fight to the death, which is why sellers band their claws.
Despite that precaution, one October day Scott witnessed a small lobster huddled in a corner of the Marsh tank as it was attacked by a new shipment of larger lobsters. “You could see it was terrified,” she says compassionately. “They have a brain; they register fear. I could see fear in that little lobster. I’d rather be in pain than be afraid.”
Recognizing that there is still much to be learned about lobsters, LobsterLib.com emphasizes current knowledge that indicates lobsters do feel pain and fear. They also endure stress caused by captivity in an unnatural environment. The crustaceans are secretive bottom-dwellers who hide in burrows, prowling the ocean floor at night. Conditions including bright fluorescent store lights, a lack of hiding places and extreme overcrowding are contrary to their well-being. In addition, according to Dr. Robert Steneck of the University of Maine, who has studied lobster behavior, “They’re very sensitive to human presence.”
Deno details the precautions taken to make sure no human hands ever touch the lobsters “to ensure the health of the animals,” but he had nothing to say about their environment other than praising Marsh’s efforts to maintain clean water and bacteria. However, even casual observers believe that captive lobsters aren’t fed because store owners don’t want to deal with the subsequent waste that pollutes the tanks, and since the animals are known to be sensitive to poor water conditions and easily pick up viruses transmitted via sea water (such as the Panulirus argus virus 1), it’s simpler to starve them than maintain them.
Avoiding the problems a holding tank engenders, other local establishments pursue various options. Kona Jack’s Fish Market and Sushi Bar has the lobsters flown in after a required one-day advance order. They arrive in a box, covered in seaweed. According to one employee, “If they’re kept cold and moist, they’re OK.”
Midwest Seafood Inc., a wholesaler, uses a similar procedure. An anonymous employee there declared that “They can live a couple days out of the water” thanks to special gills on their legs. Lobsters are often packed in ice while still alive and left for months.
The Indiana State Board of Animal Health doesn’t have any regulations regarding the sale of lobsters in stores, reveals Ginny Tauer, public information specialist. Nor do they have any regulations regarding farm-raised versus live-captured lobsters. In fact, she admits, they have no animal welfare jurisdiction at all.
A. Scott Gilliam, manager of the Food Protection Program for the Indiana State Department of Health, discloses that ISDH Food Protection law does not regulate the transport or sale of live lobsters. Only when they’re “killed and converted to food” are they covered by any regulation — a retail food establishment sanitation requirement (ISDH Rule 410 IAC 7-24).
The final degradation
Considered until the mid 19th century low-class “poverty” food fit only for prisoners, the poor and indentured servants (who rebelled if forced to eat it more than three times per week), lobsters were deemed a smelly nuisance and ground up for fertilizer.
Today, the U.S. lobster industry produces around 80 million pounds a year — so much, the U.S. federal government has labeled the American lobster population “overfished.” Their modern appeal lies in their “freshness,” ease of transporting and keeping alive and the fact that they require no cleaning or dressing.
But it’s that freshness that horrifies Scott, a meat eater who says she could never kill what she eats. The thought of dropping a live creature into a pot of boiling water repulses her. According to marine zoologists, it takes lobsters 35 to 45 seconds to die in boiling water. Researcher Gordon Gunter described this method of killing lobsters in the journal Science as “unnecessary torture,” and Australia’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says that boiling these sensitive animals is an “unacceptable method” of killing them because it is so horribly painful, reports LobsterLib.com. The government of New Zealand also recognizes that lobsters feel pain and included them in its humane slaughter legislation, which protects animals from painful methods of killing.
Other, possibly crueler, methods of killing the crustaceans include live microwaving, live dismemberment and the practice of “live sushi,” where lobsters are chopped open and served while still conscious and writhing in pain.
Scott wants Marsh to feed the lobsters in their care. A coalition of animal protection organizations wants grocery stores to stop selling live lobsters altogether. In June this year, they convinced Whole Foods Market, the country’s largest natural foods grocery chain, to ban the sale of live lobsters and soft-shell crabs out of concern for the animals’ welfare. CEO John Mackey recognized the “importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals,” irrespective of their appearance or purpose, in the new policy. But with no regulations guiding a market-drive industry where purchasing power speaks louder than all the concerns voiced by people like Donna Scott, the consumer will ultimately determine lobster policy at places like Marsh.