Crusty, but crying inside
By Penelope Debelle
May 16 2003
Under water no one can hear you scream.
But a couple of Australian fisherman have become attuned to the plight of the humble lobster and its pain threshold on the way to the dinner table.
After complaints by the fishermen and recent research that found fish feel pain, scientific tests have begun in Adelaide to see how much it hurts when a section of tail is cut off a live crustacean.
In South Australia, Western Australian and Tasmania recreational fishermen must remove the tail fan of lobsters caught in private pots to mark them as a recreational rather than commercial catch.
The lobsters are then usually kept alive for as long as possible during transportation to preserve freshness. The two fishermen have baulked at the practice, believing it to be cruel.
Their complaints cut no ice with the South Australian Fisheries, which prosecuted them for non-compliance. But in doing so it also undertook to examine their concerns.
"The way animals ethics are these days, it needed to be investigated," said the fisheries chief, Will Zacharin.
The fisheries' veterinarian, Dr Colin Johnston, and scientists from the South Australian Research and Development Institute have begun examining lobster tails for evidence of nerve tissue. They will also test the biochemical response of lobsters when their tails are clipped because animals in pain emit antigens which can be an indicator of distress.
"Even though these creatures are going to be eaten, people still care about these things," Dr Johnston said.
An assessment will be made in about a month on whether the lobsters' response is a reflex twitch or a real show of distress.
But a hacked tail may be the least of a lobster's troubles.
"If you look at it in context there are lobsters losing legs all the time and having their antennae busted off in the course of being caught," Mr Zacharin said.
The findings will be used to recommend whether the practice should continue but, either way, the reprieve will be shortlived.
"When you think about it, lobsters after they are caught are either drowned in fresh water or they are thrown into boiling water," Mr Zacharin said.