Laboratory lobster: the Corsican institute hopes that breeding will solve overfishing | Fishing

IInside a white-walled laboratory, an assistant puts on rubber gloves and lowers a net into a water-filled reservoir that takes up half the room. In a corner hides a lobster. As the net approaches, the animal rushes to the other side of the tank and comes back. It evades capture for a while until it is finally caught and lifted – only to stubbornly grab the net with its claws and plunge back into the water.

“It is a very resistant creature”, explains Jean-José Filippi, engineer at the Stella Mare laboratory. “These lobsters will not be fished on purpose. But they still need our help if they are to survive.

Stella Mare is a marine research institute like no other. An elegant snail-shaped installation on a peninsula south of the Corsican city of Bastia, it was created in 2011 by the University of Corsica and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) with a new idea for fight against overfishing.

According to the UN report on the State of the World’s Fisheries last year, populations of seafood caught at unsustainable levels tripled from 10% in 1974 to 34% in 2017.

Efforts to reduce overfishing have largely focused on tighter controls and policing, with limited success. Stella Mare takes a different approach: raising species to fish.

Lobster larvae are affected by temperature and their growth has accelerated from five months in the Mediterranean to just three months in Stella Mare’s laboratory. Photography: Raphaël Poletti

For three years, the institute has been breeding sea anemones, delicacies of choice in many Mediterranean countries, and has distributed thousands of them in fishing areas around Corsica. Among many other species, he wishes to breed European flat oysters, sea urchins, spider crabs and, of course, lobsters.

Despite the imposed no-fishing periods, the catch size limits and the outright ban on taking berried females, the number of lobsters continues to drop here.

“The only next step would be a complete ban,” Filippi said. “But nobody wants that – we would kill the fishing industry. So we want to breed these species and put them back into the ocean and see if the stocks recover. “

The Mediterranean and the Black Sea have the highest rate of overexploited populations (62.5%), according to the UN report, and lobster catches in Corsica have increased from 300 tonnes per year in the 1950s to 61 tonnes on average over the past two years – widely regarded as evidence of a population decline, not a successful reduction in fishing.

But although it is classified as vulnerable, fishing for Palinurus elephas, the red lobster, continued. Lobster accounts for 70% of Corsica’s fishing income, worth € 4million (£ 3.4million) a year, and experts say environmentalists have alienated people making a living in the sector by not involving them adequately in efforts to combat overfishing.

“I think there is no doubt that the traditional forms of fisheries management in terms of top-down regulation and enforcement through the police are a difficult way to combat overfishing,” says Alex David Rogers, scientific director of the nonprofit REV Ocean and visiting professor at the University of Oxford. He pleads for collaboration between the authorities and the representatives of the fishery.

Enter Stella Mare, a fishing-focused effort not only to restore the species, but to boost the local fishing economy. Reproduction in the laboratory could help make species restoration “easier, faster and more sustainable,” argues Filippi, who heads the breeding program, while enabling artisanal fishing – and the thousands of jobs it does. makes life in Corsica, not to mention hundreds of millions around the world – to be done in a sustainable way.

So far, Stella Mare has received strong support from local fishermen. “It is a magnificent project of which we are very proud”, declares Gérard Romiti, president of the Corsican fishermen’s committee (CRPMEM). “The help of scientists and the University of Corsica gives us a new vision of the future.

In May, Stella Mare announced a breakthrough. He had raised six thorny juveniles lobsters 83 days after hatching from eggs. An “encouraging” survival rate of 50% was a “major scientific advance”, according to the institute. It has had similar success with the European spider crab (Maja squinado): the institute raised more than 1,200 juveniles this year, of which more than 70% survived.

An adult female red lobster at Stella Mare.  The University of Corsica's marine research institute has reared six lobsters in its laboratory.
An adult female red lobster. Stella Mare said raising six lobsters, with a 50% survival rate, was a “major scientific breakthrough”. Photography: Peter Yeung

But the lobster is the jackpot. Building on work begun in the 1980s by Japanese researchers, staff at Stella Mare are experimenting with creating ideal conditions for lobster farming, including factors such as shape and type of tanks, number of lobsters in each tank, the amount of sunshine and the acidity of the water.

The payoffs could be huge. Since the metabolism of lobster larvae is affected by temperature, the rate of their growth can be accelerated under controlled conditions. It takes 12 months for larvae to become juveniles in the Atlantic, five months in the Mediterranean and only three in the laboratory at Stella Mare. Once these techniques are perfected, the institute aims to expand the process and breed millions of species, using specially constructed buildings to breed lobsters in tanks.

It won’t be easy. Previous researchers abandoned their efforts to keep lobsters – the larvae are fragile, and lobsters have complicated food and health needs.

The main challenge is to feed lobsters in an efficient and nutritious way, but cheap enough to be used on a large scale. “Everyone currently uses pretty much the same thing: standardized foods made from shellfish and plankton,” says Filippi. “But it doesn’t have the vitamins and minerals that lobsters need. It doesn’t suit them.

Others warn that breeding species outside of their natural environment could limit genetic diversity in the ocean once they are finally reintroduced. “This is an important and very welcoming breakthrough,” says Marcelo Vasconcellos, fisheries officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). “But there could be genetic effects to using lab-grown or lab-grown lobsters and integrating them into the natural population. Great care must be taken not to cause inbreeding effects. “

Stella Mare says she is taking all necessary precautions and will study the genetics of lobster populations in Corsica before they are released. “It’s a risk,” admits Filippi. “But we are specialists in this question, and for several years we have been studying the question of genetics, adequate genetic mixing and monitoring of released populations. “

Even then, laboratory reproduction is only part of the picture of long-term sustainability. Alessandro Gianni, campaign manager at Greenpeace Italy, stresses the need for regulations on industrial fishing such as driftnets, the creation of marine reserves and conservation efforts at regional level. “No fish, no fishermen,” as the old man said. We have to have these protections, ”says Gianni.

For Filippi, despite the obstacles, the project has the power to transform the future of marine life. “We have all this expertise that we have accumulated on these species,” he says. “We are able to reuse this knowledge. We are now able to truly innovate.

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