lobster breeding at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

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Posted by on July 17, 2006 at 02:15:35:

Lobsterama arrives in San Pedro as Cabrillo Marine Aquarium begins historic research.

Shhh. Don't even think of mentioning the upcoming Lobster Festival if you visit the aquatic nursery at San Pedro's Cabrillo Marine Aquarium these days.

It would clearly be in bad taste.

LB-2 is a new mom, after all. And her brood of some half-million babies -- yes, half a million, no fertility drugs needed -- has just been hatched, drifting helpless in a ravenous, buttered lobster-loving world.

The tiny, week-old California spiny lobsters are the newest additions to the nursery, a research laboratory that opened just two years ago at the popular beachfront aquarium.

Altogether, nearly 1 million lobster hatchlings are being nurtured and studied at the aquarium under the watchful care of laboratory assistant Cora Webber. The adult mother lobsters -- tagged LB-1 and LB-2 -- were picked up pregnant about two weeks into their five-week pregnancies last month off Catalina Island during one of the aquarium's popular science excursions. If not needed for exhibit purposes at the aquarium, the moms will be released back into the ocean.

In their early months not much is known about the tiny creatures, which are barely visible to the naked eye and look like a drifting, swirling pink cloud in the aquarium tank. Do they disperse or stay together as a swarm in the ocean? How many actually survive?

Only two facilities in the nation have attempted to raise them in captivity. Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is now the third.

"This is one of the hardest species to research so it's a huge break for us," said Mike Schaadt, acting director of the aquarium.

With translucent bodies only about 2 millimeters long, the hundreds of thousands of baby lobsters are difficult to see at this early stage.

"These animals are so thin they look like a leaf," Schaadt said. "I've been a marine biologist for over 25 years and I've never seen one of these alive."

Because the lobster population has been stable for many years, it's believed that lobsters reproduce enough numbers to only replace themselves -- meaning that perhaps only two of the many thousands of hatchlings (Phyllosoma larvae) manage to survive to adulthood.

And the new babies are safe for now. It takes lobsters about seven years to reach a "marketable" size for fishermen. (California spiny lobsters do not have the claws that their East Coast cousins do but are still a popular menu item.)

Webber, a 2003 San Pedro High graduate who will be studying marine biology this fall at California State University, Dominguez Hills, has been looking after her charges since they hatched last week. She is examining them under a microscope and feeding them baby brine shrimp (the baby lobsters are also inclined to gobble up one another, so even lobsters like lobster).

"I'm taking pictures every single day," she said, comparing them to tiny, transparent spiders when viewed through a microscope. "Our goal is just to get information about them. We're taking it day-to-day."

It was also up to Webber to try to count the mass of little baby lobsters, which she did by taking representative water samples from the tank.

LB-2, it is estimated, produced some 560,000 hatchlings. Aquarium scientists aren't sure about LB-1 yet since they haven't tried to count those hatchlings in a separate tank.

But combined, aquarium scientists estimate about 1 million offspring have been born to the two mothers.

How many will make it through the many stages of lobster development remains to be seen.

"Even if Cora ends up with just one lobster, we'll be dancing in the streets," Schaadt said. "This has already been a success as far as we're concerned."

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