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Lobsters on a roll

New research reveals that lobsters are too smart for fishermen's traps - they're dining and going home.

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Down on the ocean bottom, marine biologist Bob Steneck seems to be finding a lobster under just about every stone.

Mr. Steneck reveals them hiding under kelp fronds, amid fields of round rocks dumped here by ancient glaciers, and in little lobster fox holes dug into the sand.

Lobsters are everywhere, including the inside of a lobsterman's trap nearby. One drives a small crab away from the bait-filled bag hanging in the trap and resumes eating. Two others have dug burrows under the trap and wait patiently for their turn to dine.

Here lies the great lobster mystery. For nearly three decades, federal fisheries managers have warned that the lobster stock is overfished and faces imminent collapse. But instead, the annual lobster catch has exploded, from 20 million pounds in the '70s and early '80s to around 50 million pounds today, and scientists like Steneck see little evidence that fishermen are hurting the lobster population.

"Lobsters may be globally unique in that their population keeps growing despite high rates of exploitation by fishermen," says Steneck, who studies the tasty crustaceans at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

But scientists are beginning to get a handle on why lobsters are thriving in the face of the sort of overwhelming fishing pressures that have devastated cod, haddock, urchins, and other species in the northwest Atlantic.

Their discoveries are turning traditional fisheries management assumptions on their head, and appear to vindicate lobstermen's long-standing assertions that they have little effect on lobster population.

Take lobster traps themselves. Scientists and lobstermen generally assumed that the box-shaped traps were pretty effective snares. Lobsters enter the traps through a funnel-shaped opening and, after dining on bait inside, were thought to have great difficulty finding their way back out through the narrow end of the funnel.

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