Rare Orange Lobster Found Off Nauset

By: Tim Wood

Rare orange and calico lobsters in the tank at Mac's Chatham Fish and Lobster. TIM WOOD PHOTO

How rare are orange lobsters?

Paul Davis has been a commercial lobsterman for 12 years, and the orange lobster he pulled out of a trap just east of Nauset Beach Sept. 7 was the first time he'd seen one of that color.

“I've never seen anyone else catch one,” he added.

Orange isn't the rarest color found in lobsters – that would be white or albino lobsters, which strictly speaking is a lack of color – but orange lobsters are more rare than blue lobsters. According to various sources, orange coloring occurs in about one in 30 million lobsters. For comparison, commercial lobstermen in Massachusetts land about 15 million lobsters annually.

This isn't the first orange lobster that Bill Murphy has heard about. The senior aquarist of the Northern Waters Gallery at the New England Aquarium in Boston has a tank full of lobsters, many with unusual coloring.

“Oranges are very rare,” he said, repeating the one in 30 million figure, although he acknowledged its more anecdotal than scientific. “Some years we'll have a lot more oranges,” he added.

A genetic anomaly accounts for the diversion from the usual dark brown, greenish lobster coloring. Murphy explained lobster shells have three layers, one red, one blue and another yellow. In a normal lobster, the layers bond and produce the usual dark green or brown color. When the shell layers fail to bond, one or more of the colors dominates.

Color can also be dietary, Murphy said. If a lobster is eating a diet that lacks the protein required for the shell layers to bond, it can change color. “That takes a long time eating the same food,” he said, and once the diet changes, if the lobster moves into a different area, for example, the normal color will return.

Davis, an Orleans resident who fishes on the F/V Clo-Anne that he launches from Town Cove, was pulling his traps off Nauset Beach last Tuesday. “We weren't having the best day in the world, when all of a sudden my steering man said, 'Look, we've got an orange lobster!'” he said. Daniel Hohner held up the creature, and sure enough, it was bright orange, almost pumpkin colored, rather than the typical dark greenish blue or brown. They immediately put it in a cooler away from the other lobsters caught that day.

“My sister said it looked like it was cooked already,” Davis said of the one-and-three-quarter-pound lobster. In fact, all lobsters, except albinos, turn bright red when cooked.

Davis said he caught a robin's egg blue lobster a few years back, but found it had a v-notch, which identified it as a female yet to bear eggs, and he returned it to the water. He said Hohner had caught a blue lobster a few years back and donated it to the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History.

The orange lobster may end up at the Brewster museum as well. Davis sold it to Mac's Chatham Fish and Lobster, and manager Paul Dineen said it will remain on display in the fish store's lobster tank – along with an equally rare calico lobster brought in by another lobsterman – for a few weeks before being given either to the museum or the New England Aquarium. The orange lobster was named Clarence Junior Senior II, since it is the latest in a series of unusually colored lobsters that the fish market has had on display.

Murphy said calico lobsters may be even rarer than orange ones, and it's uncertain what causes that distinct coloring pattern.

Murphy gets calls about unusually colored lobsters from all over New England. The Aquarium accepts accepts donations of the crustaceans, but right now his lobster tank is full.

“They live a long time, and I've been here a long time and had a lot of donations and kind of run out of room,” he said. When donations are offered, the Aquarium seeks out education centers where the lobsters can be kept alive and on display. He likes to include the name of the lobsterman or pound of origin with the lobster, he added, because “without them, I wouldn't have any lobsters.”

Davis said he'll be keeping an eye out for more orange lobsters.

“It's the only one I've ever seen, but I'm sure they're out there,” he said.