Notes on...

The politics of eating lobster

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

Lobsters like to live in gullies on the sea floor, or under sand, and I understand how they feel. But you can’t hide from politics. An amendment to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill will make it illegal to post shrink-wrapped lobsters alive, or boil them alive, which turns them from blue to Father Christmas scarlet. In Switzerland, Norway and New Zealand it is already illegal to boil them. It is considered kinder to freeze them or pierce them or shoot them with an expensive lobster-stunning gun which you can probably buy in Hampstead Village. And then boil them.

Lobsters were once food for the destitute near the sea, so plentiful they would wash ashore in piles. Then the trains came, and it was possible to transport them inland. The price shot up. I think the pleasure is in the oddness; the decadence to eating something so resistant and with so little meat. Lobsters grow a shell each year, but it hasn’t helped them so far.

In the seafood restaurant I visit, they don’t want to boil them alive. They don’t want them at all. The lobsters come in ‘flustered’ and need to sit under damp tea towels so they can’t see what’s happening. ‘It’s taken a long time for people to realise they do feel,’ says the chef. He pierces their spinal cord with a knife ‘because it’s more humane’. A waitress here once worked in a restaurant where lobsters were steamed alive: they were placed on racks with trays of water at the bottom. They knocked on the door with their claws, pleading, she says: tap, tap, tap. Or they would shed their claws, like a lobster in a Russian novel.

I am glad I have only eaten two: once in a Swiss restaurant with a pretend decadent uncle who couldn’t conceal his heartbreak and once for a newspaper feature. I don’t like lobster, and neither does the waitress: ‘They’re over-rated. People love them because they are expensive.’

The shellfish merchant thinks the law is ridiculous. All politics is a balance between competing rights, and he cares more about the lobster fishermen than the lobsters because he doesn’t drink with the lobsters. He has a PhD in live transport methodology for crustaceans and he believes ‘if this bill comes in it’s going to be a mess, we will lose diversity in the marketplace’. Only the very large wholesalers will be able to transport lobsters in tanks on lorries. The smaller ones will collapse.

I ask the lobster fisherman: what are lobsters like? He thinks it’s a stupid question but who else would I ask? He has 150 pots, and he checks them once a week but not in winter. The sea is too rough. He baits the pots with salted fish, and they walk in on ten legs, oblivious. Not the large ones, who might be 47 years old, like me. The middling ones. Once he got nine in one pot, but they were small, and he had to throw them back, along with the pregnant: women and children overboard. Fishermen spend a surprising amount of time with tape measures.

You can’t farm lobsters because they are cannibals, and I like that about them. That is why, delicacy or no, they come wearing rubber bands: to protect them from themselves.

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