Monterey Bay Aquarium member Tom Powers was enjoying a beautiful day of freediving off the Channel Islands near Ventura, California, when he came across “the largest lobster I’ve ever seen”—weighing an astounding 11 pounds. He wrestled the California spiny lobster (Panulirus interruptus) out of its cave—losing a few inches of his Kevlar glove in the process—and took it home, intending to give it pride of place on his dinner table.
But the more he reflected on the “magnificent beast” he had caught, the more he realized that it deserved a different destiny. He placed a call to the Aquarium to see if we would be interested in putting the enormous lobster—estimated to be more than 50 years old—on exhibit. Aquarist Kevin Lewand and the rest of the husbandry staff happily accepted, and the lobster is currently ensconced in a rocky cave in the Enchanted Kelp Forest section of the Splash Zone.
Old man of the sea
California spiny lobsters are estimated to gain 1.5 pounds every 7-8 years, according to Lewand. But that formula is an approximation, and there are other factors that could make this specimen as old as 80 or 90! (For instance, growth seems to slow with age, and also varies according to the available food supply.) Regardless, it seems likely that this particular lobster was shuffling across the ocean floor before Eisenhower was president.
The California spiny lobster is a “huge keystone species,” says Lewand. “They’re important for a healthy kelp forest.” In the absence of a vibrant lobster population (especially large ones), sea urchin “barrens” can take over and denude the kelp forest, which is home to myriad other species. The California lobster fishery is closed from March through September to protect egg-carrying and molting female lobsters. At other times of the year, the commercial trap fishery is restricted, and recreational divers can take a maximum of seven lobsters per day, using only their hands to retrieve them.
Still, according to the California Department of Fish and Game, “trophy-size lobster of both sexes…are becoming more scarce.” Marine Protected Areas—the so-called “Yosemites of the Sea” where human activities are restricted—may provide a critical boost to the species, allowing them to recover and thrive.
And just maybe, Marine Protected Areas could provide a safe haven for more “big bugs” like the one now on exhibit at the Aquarium.
“I love to hunt and eat lobster,” said Powers. “But giving this lobster to the Aquarium was by far the most gratifying experience I've ever had in all of my years hunting.”