Once considered cockroaches of the sea and a reviled food item, lobster are now averaging around 12 dollars per pound. Believe it or not, the access of these desirable shellfish has become an issue of national security on several occasions, but only once have two nations’ militaries been deployed to fight for the right to catch lobster.
The Lobster War Of 1961
After enjoying a rather successful fishing voyage off the coast of Africa, a group of French fisherman decided to push West in search of lobster. The area they finally found was teeming with the spiny sea creatures. Setting up their nets, they pulled in lobster by the boat full. This activity did not go unnoticed by local Brazilian fishermen, however. Fearing they would be ousted from their territory, the Brazilians issued a government complaint, a complaint that eventually riled the Navy into action. Two corvettes descended on the French vessels, demanding they move to deeper waters.
Both sides took different arguments as to why they should be able to catch the lobster. Brazil reasoned that the lobster crawled along the sea floor, which is part of South America’s continental shelf, and was therefore Brazilian soil–giving them the exclusive right to catch them. The French said that the lobster swam, and just like any other fish, they could be fished internationally.
Indignant with the Brazilian’s request, the French boats called their own government for protection. In response, Brazil’s minister of foreign affairs mobilized the entirety of Brazil’s fleet, and action not taken lightly by France. Charles de Gaulle was president of France at the time. The one-time resistance leader was incensed with the whole situation, feeling greatly disrespected. He dispatched the Tartu destroyer to guard the fishermen along with air support. Both, however, were repelled by Brazil.
Brazil’s president, João Goulart, gave French forces 48 hours to withdraw, a deadline the French ignored. Hostilities peaked when the French vessel, Cassiopée, was captured. After three years of conflict, both parties decided it was best to solve things diplomatically before things got any farther out of hand. Settling the dispute in international court, the Lobster War ended in December 1964. Brazil was given a 200-mile fishing zone off its coast which included the contested territory. France, however, was granted fishing privileges in the area for 26 of its ships for the next five years.
Despite solving the political conflict, the court failed to render a judgment about the nature of lobster in international waters for other countries. Scientists worked for another two years arguing whether lobster walked or swam. Eventually, the walking side won, though it was admitted that lobster could leap short distances underwater. They compared the French thesis of a lobster being a fish because it could “leap” to being the same as a kangaroo being a bird when it hopped.