Does Getting Lobsters High Before Boiling Them Alive Reduce Suffering?

Michael Tlusty, a lobster biologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, says the jury is still out on if lobsters can feel pain.

In an attempt to reduce the pain she believes lobsters experience when being cooked, a Maine chef has started using weed to try to help the crustaceans relax before their untimely deaths. But a lobster expert we spoke to wasn’t convinced this strategy would have the desired effect.

Whether or not lobsters experience pain while being boiled alive for human consumption is, surprisingly, still up for debate. A recent review of the scientific research on this topic, published in ICES Journal of Marine Science, concluded that while there were studies that concluded pain is felt, they had flaws and the evidence was lacking.


Even the researcher who first published evidence that crustaceans feel pain has said the evidence isn’t conclusive.

“There’s no absolute proof, but you keep running experiments and almost everything I looked at came out consistent with the idea of pain in these animals,” Robert Elwood, professor emeritus of animal behavior at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, told The New York Times.

But there is also not absolute proof that they don’t feel pain, which is partly why Charlotte Gill, the chef and owner of Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound in Southwest Harbor, Maine, recently started experimenting with ways to sedate the animals before cooking using weed. She tested a technique on one lobster named Roscoe, who she placed in a box with a few inches of water. She then blew marijuana smoke into the water and observed the effects.

“That one time has had significant long-term effects,” Gill told the Mount Island Islander, adding that Roscoe seemed more chill and relaxed for the next three weeks. She ultimately released him back into the sea. (It’s worth noting that this is not a scientific way to conduct the experiment, and that anecdotal observations of the outward behavior of one lobster is not really evidence of anything at all.)

Gill said she hopes to perfect the method so that, by next summer, all the lobsters served at her restaurant can be sedated in this way before steaming.


“The animal is already going to be killed,” said Gill. “It is far more humane to make it a kinder passage.”

But Michael Tlusty, a lobster biologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, wasn’t convinced this method was much more than a gimmick to sell seafood. Tlusty told Motherboard that lobsters experience the world very differently than humans, so it’s hard to make comparisons.

“They do stuff that we can’t even imagine like losing the lower half of the body and then eating within 30 minutes of that,” Tlusty said. “They’re set up for a totally different life. I have no idea, maybe THC works on them. That I don’t know about them.”

But, Tlusty noted, there’s a chance that having a lobster in a shallow pool being forcefully doused in smoke could be seen as inhumane as well. He said that what we do know about lobsters is that when their bodies get very cold, they move slower and respond more slowly to stimuli, which is why many chefs traditionally ice their lobsters before tossing them in the post.

“I was having a back and forth with Jeff Shields, at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who also works on lobsters,” Tlusty told me over the phone. “He said it sounded more like ‘a culinary treat rather than a culinary treatment,’ and I would agree.”

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