PORTLAND, Maine – A new study out of Norway concludes it's unlikely lobsters (search) feel pain, stirring up a long-simmering debate over whether Maine's most valuable seafood suffers when it's being cooked.
Animal activists (search) for years have claimed that lobsters are in agony when being cooked, and that dropping one in a pot of boiling water is tantamount to torture.
The study, funded by the Norwegian government and written by a scientist at the University of Oslo (search), suggests lobsters and other invertebrates such as crabs, snails and worms probably don't suffer even if lobsters do tend to thrash in boiling water.
"Lobsters and crabs have some capacity of learning, but it is unlikely that they can feel pain," concluded the 39-page report, aimed at determining if creatures without backbones should be subject to animal welfare legislation as Norway revises its animal welfare law.
Lobster biologists in Maine have maintained for years that the lobster's primitive nervous system and underdeveloped brain are similar to that of an insect. While lobsters react to different stimuli, such as boiling water, the reactions are escape mechanisms, not a conscious response or an indication of pain, they say.
"It's a semantic thing: No brain, no pain," said Mike Loughlin, who studied the matter when he was a University of Maine graduate student and is now a biologist at the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission.
The Norwegian report also reinforces what people in the lobster industry have always contended, said Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute (search), a research and education organization in Orono.
"We've maintained all along that the lobster doesn't have the ability to process pain," Bayer said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (search), an animal rights organization based in Norfolk, Va., has made lobster pain part of its Fish Empathy Project, putting out stickers and pamphlets with slogans such as "Being Boiled Hurts. Let Lobsters Live." Group supporters regularly demonstrate at the Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland.
PETA's Karin Robertson called the Norwegian study biased, saying the government doesn't want to hurt the country's fishing industry.
"This is exactly like the tobacco industry claiming that smoking doesn't cause cancer," she said.
Robertson said many scientists believe lobsters do feel pain. For instance, a zoologist with The Humane Society of the United States made a written declaration that lobsters can feel pain after a chef dismembered and sauteed a live lobster to prepare a Lobster Fra Diavolo dish on NBC's "Today" show in 1994.
It's debatable whether the debate will ever be resolved.
The Norwegian study, even while saying it's unlikely that crustaceans feel pain, also cautioned that more research is needed because there is a scarcity of scientific knowledge on the subject.
And, many consumers will always hesitate at placing lobsters in boiling pots of water.
New Englanders may feel comfortable cooking their lobsters, but people outside the region often feel uneasy about boiling a live creature, said Kristen Millar, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council.
"Consumers don't generally greet and meet an animal before they eat it," she said.