Turns out, that's completely wrong, and University of New Hampshire zoologist Win Watson has the videotape to prove it.
Curious as to how effective traps were, Professor Watson attached an underwater video camera to a standard trap and dropped it down to the seafloor off Portsmouth, N.H. Given that hauled traps usually contain only a handful of lobsters, Watson expected the tape would show a modest number of lobsters approaching the trap.
But when Watson's team looked at the first time-lapse video, they were totally stunned by what they saw. "The numbers of lobsters were just amazing," Watson recalls, with lobsters scuffling and fighting over the trap. "It looked like an anthill."
But the biggest surprise was that the lobsters were happily wandering in and out of the traps at will. On the videos, lobsters of all sizes crawled in and out of the funnel-shaped entrance as they pleased. The biggest impediment they faced were other lobsters, which did their best to chase newcomers away from the bait. Only 6 percent of the lobsters that entered the trap failed to find their way out again. (To watch the video, go to http://zoology.unh.edu/faculty/win/lobster%20ecologyfisheries/ltv.htm.)
Lobstermen who have seen the video have been just as surprised. "It's pretty discouraging to think that here we, as intelligent human beings, have been trying our best to harvest this thing that has no brain to speak of and they're outsmarting us," says an amused Pat White of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.
"But it may be that part of the success of our fishery is due to the fact that our traps are as inefficient as they are," says Mr. White, who lobsters out of York, Maine.