STONINGTON — With the help of 13 students in Mickie Flores’ seventh grade science class at Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School, researchers continued their ongoing quest to learn more about where baby lobsters settle in the Gulf of Maine.
After a newborn lobster hatches, it floats along near the surface of the ocean for about a month before settling down in a nice, craggy habitat on the seafloor. Scientists are trying to find out how low they will go.
For several years, Ready Seafood, a Portland-based lobster dealer, has been funding public research looking at how baby lobsters settle at different depths.
The previous consensus was that baby lobsters liked shallow depths; anything below 60 feet was considered too deep. But that turned out to be not quite true.
“Lobsters are settling all the way down at 180 feet,” said Curt Brown, a marine biologist at Ready Seafood.
The work was started by University of Maine lobster scientist Rick Wahle with public funding, Brown said. When that money ran dry, Ready chipped in $75,000 a year to continue it. Now Red Lobster and the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-Op are also contributing to keep the studies going, making the research one of the rare privately-funded public research projects.
“It’s a really unique industry science collaboration,” Brown said.
Ready also started an education outreach program that offered in-person presentations for schools. This brought up fond memories for Brown from when he was a kid in Cape Elizabeth and lobstermen would come in to talk to students.
Last year, the pandemic threw a wrench in that, but Brown was able to reach even more kids when he started doing remote programs. That got his brain spinning on other ideas.
“Ultimately last year we thought it would be really cool, in addition to these presentations, if we could involve the students in the research itself,” he said.
On Friday, Flores’ students were the first to try out this new program at the Stonington Lobster Co-Op. Around the hatching season, Stonington lobsterman Matt Trundy put out rock-filled cages at different depths around the island to see if any baby lobsters would crawl in to make themselves a home.
Brown and Trundy hauled the cages early Friday morning. They laid them out on the co-op’s dock and set the students to work to count what was inside.
They found three species of crab, a sea cucumber, a few older lobsters, shrimp, a rock gunnel and a Bic lighter, but no larval lobsters. Brown shrugged it off, saying that this wasn’t out of line with past collections.
“The fact that we didn’t see any out of these six isn’t all that out of the ordinary,” he said.
For him, it was all about taking science and making it something the students could experience firsthand.
“Science is something that can be local, relevant and fun,” he said. “Getting kids involved in science from an early age and showing them its more than something you read in a book is so important.”
Brown said he’d do similar programs on Vinalhaven and at the Cranberry Isles co-op with cages that were dropped around those islands.
Some of the Deer Isle Stonington students had a firm grasp on marine life. Kendra Billings, the daughter of a lobsterman, gave an impromptu lesson to her classmates on being able to tell the difference between a male and female lobster. But living in a fishing community doesn’t mean everyone knows everything about lobster and Flores was excited for a chance to help students learn about a species that shapes the region.
“We’re always looking for different ways for kids to experience science,” she said. “This is perfect.”