When European settlers alighted upon what's now known as New England, they gaped at the bounty of the shoreline, reports William Cronon in his classic 1983 book Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. Cronon lays out contemporary accounts of coastal waters teeming with cod, streams thick with salmon, of oysters “almost a foot long.”
Lobster barely registers in Cronon's survey of this almost mythically productive ecosystem, but it existed in abundance, unloved as food but exploited all the same. Native Americans used it as farm fertilizer and fishing bait, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute reports, and it emerged as a kind of trash food for the colonialists, who “served it to children, to prisoners, and to indentured servants.”
Lobster's rise from culinary afterthought to white-tablecloth delicacy has become almost the stuff of cliché. For years, overharvesting led to falling catches and high prices -- seeming to ensure lobster's highfalutin status.
But something odd has been brewing off the coast of Maine for more than a decade. Despite fears of an imminent collapse, lobster landings have skyrocketed. As a Chronicle of Higher Education article put it back in 2001, "Scientists have warned that lobsters are in danger, but nobody bothered to tell the lobsters."
Since then, the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery has only gotten more productive. "Maine lobstermen caught 123.3 million pounds of lobster during the 2012 season, which represents a 15 percent increase from 2011 and an 88 percent increase from landings two decades ago," according to news site MaineBiz. The stuff has gotten so abundant, MaineBiz reports, that New England-area Walgreens are sprouting live lobster tanks. What gives?