To many, it may seem that the lobster’s most natural habitat is on a large, oval plate between a cup of drawn butter and a lemon wedge.
In fact, only a few of the hundreds of types of lobster are caught commercially. But those few species are some of the most heavily harvested creatures in the sea, and generate a multi-billion-dollar industry, with more than 200,000 tons (181,436 metric tons) of annual global catch.
The lobsters that most people know from their dinner plates are the American and European clawed lobsters Homarus americanus and Homarus gammarus. These are cold water species that live on either sides of the northern Atlantic Ocean. There are also tropical lobsters that are widely consumed, but these are generally clawless varieties called spiny and slipper lobsters.
Lobsters are ten-legged crustaceans closely related to shrimp and crabs. These benthic, or bottom-dwelling, creatures are found in all of the world’s oceans, as well as brackish environments and even freshwater. They have poor eyesight but highly developed senses of taste and smell. They feed primarily on fish and mollusks, but will consume algae and other plant life and even other lobsters.
Female lobsters carry their eggs under their abdomens for up to a year before releasing them as larvae into the water. The larvae go through several stages in the water column before settling on the bottom, where they spend the rest of their lives. They generally prefer to live in self-dug burrows, in rocky crevices, or hidden among sea grasses. Lobsters must shed their shells in order to grow, and some species can live to be 50 years old or more, growing continually throughout their lives.
Lobsters have not always been considered chic eats. In 17th- and 18th-century America, they were so abundant in the northeast that they were often used as fertilizer. Laws were even passed forbidding people to feed servants lobster more than twice a week. However, improvements in U.S. transportation infrastructure in the 19th and 20th century brought fresh lobster to distant urban areas, and its reputation as a delicacy grew.
Populations of commercially important lobster species are thought to be declining, and overfishing, particularly of clawed lobsters in Europe, is taking a toll. Additionally, pollution is causing shell rot and other illnesses in normally disease-resistant species.