19 January 2018

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy

What are you thinking, Switzerland?

At the start of this week, I saw a news story about new Swiss regulations for the handling and killing of lobsters. (Coincidentally, it came very shortly after this very good article about similar issues around fishes.) This started with a motion by Green Party politician Maya Graf. She wanted to ban lobster imports into Switzerland outright, but Switzerland already had a trade agreement with the European Union that ruled that out.

This is the short version of the Swiss law (auto-translated from German):

The lobster is better protected in the future

Lobster and other crayfish may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water. This is important for the import to Switzerland. All species living in water must always be kept in their natural environment - this also applies to the lobster. In addition, crayfish must be stunned before being killed. The usual dipping in the gastronomy not stunned lobster in boiling water is therefore no longer permitted.

Further information: Articles 23 (1), 178 and 178a of the Animal Welfare Ordinance .

 A Q and A document says:

New scientific evidence shows that crayfish are just like vertebrates, sentient and capable of suffering.

But it does not summarize what scientific evidence was examined and used to justify this decision. However, the Swiss website links to a document from the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which implies they agency agrees with the material contained within. The RSPCA document does have a reference list of research papers, with the most recent references dating to 2015.

The RSPCA document is not intended to be a scientific literature review. But that it does cite scientific papers can give an impression of greater certainty and consensus in the scientific community than is perhaps warranted.

For context, and in the interests of full disclosure, there are very few research groups have published empirical behavioural data about crustacean noceiception. One is led by Roger Elwood, and another is led by me. There are a few other papers from other places.

First, two research labs is a small fraction of the crustacean research community. Even if those two labs were entirely in agreement about the data (the two labs have contradictory results on one effect) and the interpretation of those data, two labs should not be taken to represent a broad scientific consensus. A 2014 book on crustacean nervous systems and behaviour alone has somewhere around 30 authors, none of which are from the two labs I mentioned.

Second, the RSPCA document cites only Elwood’s papers. (In fairness, the most relevant paper I co-authored on this subject was in 2015, the same year as the newest paper in the RSPCA document. That paper may have been too new to make it into the RSPCA document.)

Third, not all researchers examining the data are in agreement, even those with expertise in the relevant issues. In her book Can Fish Feel Pain? (reviewed here), Victoria Brathwaite describes having long conversations with Elwood about this topic. Despite Elwood’s arguments, Braithwaite concluded that lobsters do not feel pain. Joe Ayers (who was an examiner on my Ph.D.) also disagrees.

Fourth, the papers cited by the RSPCA do not claim that lobsters (and other large decapod crustaceans) are sentient, nor do they claim that they suffer. The papers are appropriately cautiously worded, and say the results are consistent with crustacean pain. Elwood has said this when speaking to scientists. “Consistent with” means “not ruled out.” It doesn’t necessarily mean likely. But when speaking to the general press, Elwood has said lobsters probably feel pain. As quoted above, the Swiss Q and A goes even further and says lobster pain has been shown.

And thus do we move from “possible” in data, to “probable” in the public eye, to “definite” in law.

The specifics of the policies are also puzzling. It forbids lobsters from being transported on ice. It is not clear in my translation (“Direct contact with ice or iced water can cause cold in the animals damage arises.”) if this is because of concerns about “pain”. A paper I co-authored in 2015 that showed crayfish do not avoid very low temperature stimuli.

The law seems to require that lobsters and crayfish are anaesthetised before being killed (Google translates the word as “stunned,” but this doesn’t seem to refer to electrical stunning). But when you ask crustacean biologists how to aneasthetize crustaceans, one common answer is, “Put them on ice.” Even the Q and A recommends cooling lobsters before killing them. It’s not clear why cooling is recommended but ice is illegal.

I don’t agree with this article that mocks the Swiss law, saying:
(T)here’s no scientific evidence to support the position.

The material quoted as being from the Lobster Institute is, like the SWiss law, far more confident than the data suggests. The article pulls out the “lobsters have no brain” myth. We have known for more than a century they do have brains. Absolutely nobody knows what the minimal amount of nervous system is for generating “pain.”

I want to make it clear that the recommendations for killing lobsters in the RSPCA document are generally consistent with what I do when using decapod crustaceans for research. (IMage also shows up here.) The image at the top of this post shows how I was taught to sacrifice decapod crustaceans in a humane way. It is not the only way, but I think it is reasonable and fairly easy.

I agree with the goals of this law. You should be careful in handling and killing animals rather than careless. But it’s not a strong model for science informing policy.

P.S.—One interesting tidbit I learned in perusing the Swiss documents is that Crustastun (which I wrote about eight years ago; see also here) makes no equipment, according to the Swiss Q and A document.

Related posts

What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain
Crustacean pain is still a complicated issue, despite the headlines

External links

Revision of various regulations in the veterinary field (Hat tip to Taking Apart Cats on Twitter)
Questions and answers about lobster (PDF in German)
Humane killing and processing of crustaceans for human consumption (PDF in English)
Swiss ban against boiling lobster alive brings smiles — at first
Do lobsters feel pain when we boil them alive? (Contains earlier version of image I created from top of page.)
Switzerland bans boiling lobsters alive, grants other protections to the crustaceans
Lobsters 'very likely' feel pain when boiled alive, researcher says
Fish feel pain. Now what?
Science Pushed to Back Burner, as Swiss Outlaw Live Lobster Boiling
Another country has banned boiling live lobsters. Some scientists wonder why.
Switzerland rules lobsters must be stunned before boiling
The Swiss Consider the Lobster. It Feels Pain, They Decide.

12 December 2017

Tuesday Crustie: The river of woe

Surface dwellers, meet Cherax acherontis. Cherax acherontis, meet surface dwerllers.

There are plenty of burrowing crayfish in Australia, but this crayfish from the island of New Guinea is the first cave dweller, not just in the region, but south of the equator. That's quite remarkable, considering that the Pacific is a hotspot of crayfish biodiversity, and there are southern hemisphere crayfish in Madagascar and South America.

The name is from Acheron, one of the rivers the ran through the underworld of Greek mythology.


Patoka J, Bláha M, Kouba A. 2017. Cherax acherontis (Decapoda: Parastacidae), the first cave crayfish from the Southern Hemisphere (Papua Province, Indonesia). Zootaxa 4363(1): 137-144. https://doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.4363.1.7

08 December 2017

Twice in a lifetime: South Texas snowfall!

Last time, I only saw the aftermath.

This time, I got to see it happen.


There hadn’t been snow in a century before 2004, and now twice in less than 20 years? This is crazy.

It started around 9:00 am, and ran for a couple of hours. It was big fluffy flakes that was coming down quite thick at one point.

I asked everyone I saw, “Are we having fun yet?!” Everyone was having fun. Everyone was happy. One student said, “This is the best thing that could have happened during finals!”

There were snowball fights outside the library.

Alas, it dod not last long. After a couple of hours, it had stopped. But there was so much snow on the trees, that as it melted, it sounded like a downpour.

Last time, I made a snowman. This time, I made something different:

A South Texas snow angel!

I can’t believe I got to see snow twice in South Texas during my time there. Today was pretty magical.

I’ve been inside for an hour now, and my fingers are still numb.

Related posts

Something wonderful
After the (snow)fall
Once in a lifetime

04 December 2017

End of a project

Eight years ago and three months ago, I started a project to accommodate Jessica Murph’s request to do fieldwork (she was a student in the NSF REU program I ran then). It was a simple project to try to figure out some basic biology of the local sand crab species, Lepidopa benedicti.

Jessica finished her year in the program, and I kept going. And going.

Along the way, the project yielded three papers (Murph and Faulkes 2013, Faulkes 2014, 2017). The last paper covered up this project from 2011 to the end of 2015, and I have gathered two more years of data, making it seven calendar years of continuous monthly samples.

It’s a project where I genuinely felt I learned a lot. There was, at the start of this project, very little known about any species of this family. This project was a good first step in understanding the natural history not just of L. benedicti, but the family. And I found a species that had never been documented in the area before.

There were times when things got crazy when I could just think to myself, “I have to go to the beach.” They were good opportunities to decompress.

That project came to a close for the foreseeable future yesterday.

Posting here has been slow this semester, because I stuff that I didn’t want to blog about. It’s good stuff, not bad! I have some big plans that start early next year that I am very excited about.

But for every door that opens, one closes. These projects will be taking me away from South Texas, and I’m not going to be able to visit my field site for a while. I can’t go collect and measure “my” sand crabs.

I’ve had other projects that have ended before, but I can’t think of another that ran so long. It’s tough knowing that I still have questions that I will only be able to answer by collecting, and not knowing if or when I might be able to pick up the project again. Even if I do, I won’t have the bragging rights of a nice, continuous record.

On the plus side, I do still have two more years of field data in the can that I can analyze. I hope that I might be able to squeeze one more paper out of this project.

But I’m still a little sad.


Faulkes Z. 2014. A new southern record for a sand crab, Lepidopa websteri Benedict, 1903 (Decapoda, Albuneidae). Crustaceana 87(7): 881-885. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685403-00003326

Faulkes Z. 2017. The phenology of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae). Journal of Coastal Research 33(5): 1095-1101. https://doi.org/10.2112/JCOASTRES-D-16-00125.1

Murph JH, Faulkes Z. 2013. Abundance and size of sand crabs, Lepidopa benedicti (Decapoda: Albuneidae), in South Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist 58(4): 431-434. https://doi.org/10.1894/0038-4909-58.4.431

Photo by Karren Faulkes. Thanks, mom.

07 November 2017

Tuesday Crustie: Lawdy, lawdy, look who’s 40!

Sometimes we underestimate how long our pets might live.

This female pet hermit crab, Jonathan Livingston Crab (name given before sex determined), is at least 40 years old.

Ths article is great. I love this part:

Jon’s great age is an amazing accomplishment, but can you really have a relationship with a crab? Ormes says Jon can tell her apart from other people, and he clearly seeks out her company. “He follows me places. When I’m out on the lanai [enclosed porch] on my computer he comes out there and climbs on my feet, if I go to the morning room he comes out there and walks around the table,” she says. “If I go out and leave him out of his tank, I come home and he’s at the front door.”

Hat tip to Frank Dirrigl.

External links

26 October 2017

Throwaway lines

For one student, it was, “Keep it simple. Science is hard enough as it is.”

For another student, it was, “It’s a skill, like anything else. You can learn it and get better at it.”

There were both things I said to students in part of bigger conversations about something else. I thought were throwaway lines. But these students told me that those comments were important to them.

One student kept going back and thinking, “Simplify.” And had success when he did so.

The other student had a “fixed mindset”: that there was a certain amount of skill you had, and when you reached that point in a subject, you were done. Your intellectual ladder was only so tall, it only let you climb over so many walls. My throwaway line helped her switch to a “growth mindset”: practice. Work at it. You can improve.

Sometimes, as an educator, you put a lot of work into the content of courses. You have to write learning objectives, figure out how to explain some tricky concept, work on grading rubrics... and sometimes, the course content is absolutely not the thing sticks with the students.

Sometimes, it’s the random, tangential comments that students tell you later were the things that mattered to them. And I think are highly undervalued in education. You can’t predict or plan for those. But they can happen in the little unscripted moments, particularly when you have a good working relationship and dialogue with students.

For me, it was, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” It was reading an article or letter in a journal someplace, but that became a mantra for me when I was working on manuscripts. I realized I was waiting too much to make things just so when they were never going to get that way. It was a throwaway line that dramatically changed my productivity.

04 October 2017

I come to bury the GRE, not to praise it

I’ve seen a few graduate programs announce that they are not going to require students submit GRE scores any more. These announcements are widely met with praise. The GRE has minimal predictive value in long term grad school success, and it is biased against a lot of groups. And the costs stops a lot of people from applying to grad school.

Interestingly, at the start of last year, the dean of our graduate college announced that several programs were being required to add the GRE to their admission requirements. This was imposed on at from outside the institution at the state level. I can’t remember if it was UT System or the THECB.

Full disclosure. When I became the graduate program coordinator of our master’s program, I pushed and got our department to start requiring the GRE. My rationale at the time was that this was the “industry standard.” We wanted our students to go into doctoral programs, and we reasoned that we would be helping students pave the way for doctoral work by having them do it sooner rather than later.

Also, I was reacting to students who would come in the day before classes started and say, “Can I be a grad student?” At the time, there was no application deadline. And students who did that tended not to persist in the program. So requiring the GRE forced students to plan ahead, not go a grad school because there was nothing good on television that day.

I have since come around to see the many problems with the GRE. But I don’t think our department would be allowed to get rid of it, seeing how many departments were force to require it.

But this is something I think about.

The GRE tried to solve a couple of problems. It failed to solve them, but those problems still exist. And I don’t know how to solve them. The problems are:

  • Grading policies vary wildly across institutions. (See this blog post.)
  • People interpret the same grades in different ways depending on the institution’s perceived rigour and prestige. (See this blog post.)
  • Recommendation letters are usually uniformly glowing.
  • People tend to trust recommendations “in network” from people they know either personally or by reputation.

Students from famous universities who have rubbed shoulders with famous professors and can convince them to send a form letter get deep advantages in grad school acceptance. In other words, we end up selecting for students for grad school who already have a lot of “social capital.” If we want to diversity science, this is not the way to go about it. Diverse students come from diverse institutions, as Terry McGlynn has noted.

In theory, the GRE could have acted as a leveler for the playing field. It didn’t. But the problem it could have tackled is one that we still need to tackle. What can help level the playing field for students against “prestige”?

Related posts

What grades should look like
The “Texas transcript” is a good idea, but won’t solve grade inflation

External links

Students, Rejoice — Standardized Testing May Soon Be Dead