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CLOSE UP - On Lobsters

Lobster

The lobster's typical ordeal is a a long one - hauled out of their natural deep-sea environment in a trap, claws bound, transported to stores and kept in freezing temperatures in a state of semi-consciousness.

Becky Smith examines the barbaric treatment of lobsters.

Wild lobsters can live to be a hundred years old. They carry their young for nine months. With highly developed systems of both smell and taste they use complicated signals to determine any changes in their home environment.

Lobsters 'smell' chemicals in the water with their antennae and 'taste' with sensory hairs along their legs. They can produce and detect low-frequency sounds.

Although they do not have a cerebral cortex (the area of the brain identified as translating pain impulses into the sensation of pain), lobsters are described by those who have studied them as having complex nervous systems. Invertebrate zoologist Jaren Horsley has studied crustaceans for years and states that the lobster, 'has a sophisticated nervous system that, among other things, allows it to sense actions that will cause it harm... [Lobsters] can, I am sure, sense pain'.

From sea to the dinner table

Lobsters are caught in traps. If the trap has not been fitted with a timed release mechanism and if not retrieved, they will die from hunger, cannibalism or through being washed up on a beach. During transportation, they are typically packed tightly together in tanks with their claws bound with elastic bands to prevent them from injuring each other.

Restaurants normally prepare lobsters by placing them alive into boiling water. The Shellfish Network state that when immersed, lobsters 'behave wildly, whipping their tails and trying to escape'. It is a myth that they gradually fall unconscious if the water is slowly brought to the boil. Lobsters will shake, tremble, struggle and flip violently as the temperature is increased. Death can take anything from 15 seconds to 7 minutes.

Lobsters who have become inactive due to prolonged periods of transportation or confinement may not react so obviously as those taken straight from the sea to the pot, but they are still almost certainly sensitive to pain.

'Humane' alternatives

Even so-called humane alternatives to boiling alive are barbaric. The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) states that lobsters can be killed by using a sharp knife to split the creature from head to tail down the mid-line, cutting through the chain of nerve centres which run down the length of the body. They warn, however, that, 'this needs practice'. Furthermore, its research did not examine thoroughly the neurological responses that might have been present and indicative of pain and stress after slicing. Animals could well have been conscious throughout the process.

Sometimes lobsters are frozen before being killed. In a paper entitled, Lobster Biology, Physiology, Neurobiology, The Lobster Conservancy points out that freezing will expose lobsters to an unpleasant, unnatural temperature and that death/loss of consciousness will not be immediate. The Shellfish Network warns that 'the freezing compartment of a refrigerator would not be cold enough' and that lobsters may regain consciousness if they are not boiled immediately after removal from the freezer.

An electric stunning tank has been developed which allows lobsters to be electrically stunned before they are cooked, but there is little evidence that they experience anything more than a short-term effect from this type of stunning. Their hearts often regain normal beats.

For more information see The silent suffering of lobsters.

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