Inside a white-walled laboratory, an assistant dons rubber gloves and lowers a net into a water-filled tank taking up half the room. In a corner lurks a lobster. As the net approaches, the animal hurtles to the other side of the tank and back again. It evades capture for some time until it is finally caught and lifted out – only to stubbornly grip the net with its claws and plunge back into the water.
“It’s a very resilient creature,” says Jean-José Filippi, an engineer at the Stella Mare laboratory. “These lobsters won’t be caught willingly. But they still need our help if they are going to survive.”
Stella Mare is a marine research institute like no other. A sleek, snail-shaped facility on a peninsula jutting south from the Corsican city of Bastia, it was set up in 2011 by Corsica University and France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) with a new idea for tackling overfishing.
According to the UN’s state of world fisheries report last year, seafood populations caught at unsustainable levels have trebled – from 10% in 1974 to 34% in 2017.
Efforts to cut overfishing have largely focused on tighter controls and policing, with limited success. Stella Mare has a different approach: breed species to be fished.
The institute has bred sea anemones, which are delicacies in many Mediterranean countries, for three years and has distributed thousands of them in fishing zones around Corsica. Among many other species, it wants to breed European flat oysters, sea urchins, spider crabs and, of course, lobsters.
Despite enforced periods of non-fishing, catch-size limits and outright bans on taking egg-bearing females, lobster numbers are still falling here.
“The only next step would be a complete ban,” Filippi says. “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 replenish.”
The Mediterranean and Black Sea have the highest rate of overfished populations (62.5%), according to the UN report, and the lobster catch in Corsica fell from 300 tonnes a year in the 1950s to 61 tonnes on average over the past two years – widely seen as evidence of population declines, not of successfully reducing fishing.
But despite being classified as vulnerable, fishing for Palinurus elephas, the red spiny lobster, has continued. Lobster accounts for 70% of fishing income on Corsica, worth €4m (£3.4m) a year, and experts say conservationists have alienated people making a living in the sector by failing to adequately involve them in efforts to tackle overfishing.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that the traditional forms of managing fisheries in terms of top-down setting of regulations and enforcement through policing is a difficult way to fight overfishing,” says Alex David Rogers, science director at the non-profit company REV Ocean and a visiting professor at Oxford University. He argues for collaboration between the authorities and fisheries representatives.
Enter Stella Mare, a fisheries-oriented effort not just to restore the species, but to boost the local fishing economy. Laboratory reproduction could help make the restoration of species “easier, quicker and more durable”, argues Filippi, who leads the breeding programme, while allowing artisanal fishing – and the thousands of jobs it supports in Corsica, not to mention hundreds of millions around the world – to be done sustainably.
So far, Stella Mare has received the firm backing of local fishers. “It’s a magnificent project that makes us very proud,” says Gérard Romiti, president of the Corsican fishers’ 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. It had raised six juvenile spiny lobsters 83 days after the eggs hatched. An “encouraging” 50% survival rate was a “major scientific advance”, according to the institute. It had similar success with the European spider crab (Maja squinado): the institute has bred more than 1,200 juveniles this year, with more than 70% surviving.
But lobster is the big prize. Building on work started in the 1980s by Japanese researchers, the Stella Mare staff are experimenting with creating ideal conditions for lobster breeding, including factors such as the form and type of tanks, the number of lobsters in each tank, the amount of sunlight and the acidity of the water.
The gains could be enormous. The metabolism of the spiny lobster’s larvae is affected by temperature, so the speed of their growth can be accelerated under controlled conditions. It takes 12 months for the larvae to become juveniles in the Atlantic, five months in the Mediterranean, and just three in Stella Mare’s laboratory. Once these techniques have been honed, the institute aims to scale up the process and breed species in their millions, using specially constructed buildings to grow lobsters in tanks.
It will not be easy. Previous researchers have abandoned their efforts to breed lobsters – the larvae are fragile, and lobsters have complicated dietary and sanitary needs.
The major challenge is to feed the lobsters in a way that is effective and nutritious – yet cheap enough to be used on a large scale. “Everyone currently uses basically the same: standardised food made of crustaceans and plankton,” says Filippi. “But this doesn’t have the vitamins and minerals required for lobsters. It’s not suitable for them.”
Others warn that breeding species outside their natural environment could limit genetic diversity in the ocean once they are eventually reintroduced. “It’s an important breakthrough and very welcoming,” says Marcelo Vasconcellos, fisheries officer at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “But there could be genetic effects of using lab-cultured or lab-grown lobsters and putting them in the natural population. You have to be very careful to not cause inbreeding effects.”
Stella Mare says it is taking all necessary precautions and will study the genetics of lobster populations in Corsica before any are released. “This is a risk,” Filippi admits. “But we are specialists on this issue, and for several years have studied the question of genetics, adequate genetic mixing and monitoring of released populations.”
Even then, reproduction in laboratories is only part of the picture for long-term sustainability. Alessandro Gianni, campaign director at Greenpeace Italy, points to the need for regulation on industrial fishing such as drift nets, the creation of marine reserves and conservation efforts at the regional level. “‘No fish, no fishermen’, as the old man’s saying goes. We must have these protections,” says Gianni.
For Filippi, despite the obstacles, the project has the power to transform the future of sea life. “We have all this expertise that we’ve gathered about these species,” he says. “We are able to reuse this knowledge. We’re now capable of really innovating.”