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October 19, 2006

Heading: Freeing the Lobster, Talk of the Table by Bob Doran, photo of a Maine Lobster

The last minute e-mail alert from KHUM deejay Mike Dronkers got straight to the point, "So, yeah, I'm a vegetarian and think this is `newsworthy' or something. Anyway, this kinda shy guy Douglas Tabler is on his way to the Eureka FedEx office to ship these lobsters home to Maine. He read a Letter to the Editor in the [Times-Standard] about the inhumane Eureka Co-op lobster tanks and has taken matters into his own hands."

photo of Live lobsters packed for shipping to MaineWith just 15 minutes before zero hour, I jumped in my car and turned on the radio. By the time I hit Eureka, Dronkers was on the phone with Pete Nichols of Humboldt Baykeepers, a somewhat reluctant assistant in the lobster liberation action. He turned his cell over to Tabler, who explained how he'd become a one-man lobster liberation front.

Right: Live lobsters packed for shipping to Maine and freedom. Photo by Bob Doran.

Upset when he saw the live lobster tank in the new Co-op's meat department, Tabler initially made a protest sign and picketed the store. Then, last Wednesday, inspired by the story of a little girl who won a lobster then had it returned to the sea, he'd made a spontaneous decision to buy all the lobsters in the store.

The little girl he'd heard about was Myranda Hutchinson, a 7-year-old in Cincinnati who won an eight-pound lobster known as Bubba in a supermarket raffle. Since Myranda did not want to eat Bubba, her folks sought a home for him at various zoos and aquariums, to no avail. As one zoo curator reportedly put it, "lobsters are a dime a dozen." Instead of moving from one tank to another, Bubba was ultimately shipped by plane to Bar Harbor, Maine (fare $280) where Eddie "Diver Ed" Monat, captain of a tour boat, dropped him back into the sea.

Like Myranda, Tabler did not have a solid plan when he purchased the last four lobsters in the Co-op tank. Of course they were not a dime a dozen; they cost $14.95 a pound. It would have amounted to around $80 for the quartet of crustaceans, but for the fact that he bought them on Co-op Member Appreciation Day, and received 10 percent off.

Tabler noted that the Co-op employees were, "really helpful" and suggested that "there's a lot of support from the workers" for the anti-lobster campaign since "they're uncomfortable about selling live animals." (The folks in the meat department were also cooperative, offering to order him as many lobsters as he'd like.) Dronkers the deejay had incorrectly guessed at a connection with the letter to the editor from local food activist (and Co-op member) Martha Devine. It was a Co-op employee who showed it to Tabler. He has since contacted Devine and they plan on picketing together.

Initially, Tabler bought a large fish tank, which was in the back of his truck when he came to the Fed-Ex office near Costco. Unsure of his ability to keep the animals alive himself, he thought he might set them free off the coast locally. That's where Nichols the Baykeeper came in. Tabler called him asking for advice and he quickly convinced the liberator that letting the Atlantic sea creatures go in the Pacific was not a good idea.

photo of Douglas Tabler and Pete NicholsInstead, Nichols suggested shipping them to Maine, where he has family. By chance, Pete's brother (a Boston resident who prefers to remain anonymous) was driving up to the old homeplace. He would receive the shipment and set the lobsters free. As I mentioned above, Nichols served as a somewhat reluctant facilitator for the operation, in part because he grew up in lobster country where, he recalled, "You could buy them for a dollar or two on the docks, or people would just give them to you the way they do oversized squashes out here."

Left: Douglas Tabler and Pete Nichols at FedEx office. Photo by Bob Doran.

His work with Humboldt Baykeepers involves keeping toxic substances out of local waters, both because the stuff will harm sea life and because we don't want to eat contaminated shellfish and crabs. At the organizations' website,, you can download directions on the proper way to slaughter a live crab to avoid harmful chemicals including dioxin, PCBs and mercury. (In short, you don't boil them alive; instead you cut them in half and clean out the gills first.)

Once Tabler finished his call to KHUM, he and Nichols got to the business at hand, sealing the lobsters in a plastic cooler in preparation for their cross-country flight. But first he opened it to say goodbye. He'd kept the critters in his refrigerator overnight, "to condition them for the trip," and packed them with newspaper (copies of the Journal) and bags of ice. He seemed especially concerned about the fact that their claws were bound with rubber bands, which he noted, "must debilitate you psychologically." He'd been tempted to take them off, but did not since he'd heard the animals might attack each other.

"I just hope they get back alive," he said as he closed the cooler. Emerging from the Fed-Ex office minutes later he seemed relieved that he'd done his part, but also that shipping was less than he'd expected: "only $139."

What now? Would he be purchasing any more lobsters to set them free? "No," he said, "but tomorrow I'll be back at the Co-op with my sign," and he plans on picketing until the store removes the tank.

It was soon clear that the radio interview was making waves. A little while after leaving the Fed-Ex office I found Co-op General Manager Len Mayer outside the new Eureka store talking lobsters with muralist Duane Flatmo, who was preparing to add some fine detail to the massive pastoral covering the front of the store.

Mayer defended the live lobster tank, noting, "We've sold live shellfish for some time with no one complaining -- things like clams, oysters and mussels."

Offering a tour of the new digs, he showed off the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables arrayed in tall, decorative stacks in the fashion of Whole Foods Market produce sections. As we headed toward the Community Kitchen, where a free class on salad dressings was in session, a woman stopped Mayer to say she was relieved to hear that Co-op management had decided to get rid of the lobster tank. No, he explained, that was not the plan. As far as he was concerned the tank was staying -- steady sales demonstrate that customers want live lobster.

As we moved on past new door-less coolers stocked with juices and dairy products, including a fair share of organics, he talked of the effort to offer a wide range of products, something for everyone. He sees the lobster tank as part of that, and there it was. Tabler had emptied the lobster tank the day before, but it had been re-stocked. More than a dozen frisky lobsters crawled about inside awaiting their fate.

The pros and cons of live lobsters proved to be the talk of the town Friday night at Arts Arcata, where I ran into letter-writer Martha Devine. Intent on fomenting dissent among the Co-op membership, she's been reading up on lobsters on the web, where People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are encouraging "free the lobsters" campaigns, along with their many other causes.

There's even an official Lobster Liberation Front in the British Isles, where the tactics tend more toward sabotage of lobster traps and fishing boats, but the locals are not allied with them.

"It's all spontaneous, protesters like Doug and me who are strong vegan activists," said Devine. "In my opinion it's an egregious mistake for the Co-op to be doing what they're doing. And we're not the only ones who feel that way -- so many Co-op members have told us they agree with us."

She added, "The Co-op board of directors is charged with the decision of whether to keep the tank or not, and the annual Co-op membership meeting is coming up Wednesday, Oct. 29, from 3-6 p.m. at the Eureka store. It's the one time in the year when members can make public comment to the directors, so people need to come and take a stand."

Devine points to a precedent for getting rid of lobster tanks: The Whole Foods Market chain announced in June that they are discontinuing use of live lobster tanks. "We are not yet sufficiently satisfied that the process of selling live lobsters is in line with our commitment to humane treatment and quality of life for animals," said Margaret Wittenberg of Whole Foods in a press release.

"If Whole Foods can stop selling live lobsters we can," said Devine. "Whole Foods is not a market founded on co-op principles -- we are."

Devine has other complaints on her plate beside lobsters. There's lingering resentment over the Co-op board's decision to ignore a member's poll that went 2-1 in favor of removing Coca Cola products from store shelves. She's also not happy about the 20-year profit-sharing lease the Co-op signed with the Arkleys when they took over the Eureka store.

"That's a done deal," she concedes, "but they could get rid of the tank and at least throw us a bone -- to use a non-vegan metaphor. They say they'll lose business -- well, Whole Foods discontinued live lobster sales. Are they going out of business? I don't think so."

A veteran of anti-war, anti-globalization and anti-GMO protests, Devine is planning some street theater action for the board meeting. A friend alerted her that Target is stocking a lobster costume for Halloween. She wants one, but there's a small hitch: "I'll have to have someone else buy it, since I refuse to shop at Target."

As her friend pointed out, the costume is red, which means the lobster has been boiled. No problem says Devine. "I'll be a dead, red lobster returned from Hell -- ready to haunt your ass."

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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