Where Have Connecticut's Lobsters Gone?

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It may already be too late — 12 years too late.

Connecticut environmental officials say new tests on weak and dying Long Island Sound lobsters show traces of pesticides used to kill West Nile virus mosquitoes. That came as a shock for them. They'd always insisted it wasn't happening, couldn't happen.

Lobstermen like Nick Crismale aren't shocked. Disgusted might be a better word. "It seems to be that nobody was listening to us," the Branford fisherman says.

Crismale, other Connecticut fishermen and some independent researchers have been warning for years that toxic anti-mosquito chemicals like methoprene and resmethrin were almost certainly involved in the catastrophic crash of lobster populations in the Sound.

Since a massive 1999 die-off, lobsters have virtually vanished from portions of the seabed. Connecticut's centuries-old lobster industry has collapsed. Catches in some areas have plummeted by 99 percent. The lobsters you're eating at dining spots along the Sound almost certainly come from Maine, Canada or from deeper waters off Cape Cod.

State officials are blaming gradually warming water temperatures in the Sound. They always denied those short-lived pesticides being sprayed or dumped on ponds or in storm drains in New York and Connecticut could be responsible. There was no evidence of pesticides in lobsters, they insisted.

Except now there is. Sensitive new tests discovered minute amounts of the anti-mosquito chemicals methoprene and resmethrin in the livers or reproductive organs of sick lobsters taken from the middle of the Sound. Those results were released earlier this month along with an announcement of plans for new research.

Connecticut officials said those pesticides "decay rapidly in nature and are not expected to accumulate in the environment, which made their presence in lobster tissue an issue meriting further study."

"They finally came out and admitted they'd found methoprene in lobsters," sneers Crismale, who happens to be president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen's Association. "If you wanted to find the ideal way to kill lobsters, that would be it — methoprene."

Bob Bayer, a University of Maine professor and executive director of that state's Lobster Institute, agrees. "Anything that kills insects kills lobsters," says Bayer. (Connecticut environmental officials call that kind of statement "simplistic.")

Maine doesn't have similar pesticide problems, according to Bayer, because it prohibits the use of such chemicals anywhere that could possibly impact lobster breeding grounds. Maine is right now experiencing a massive boom in lobster populations.

Bayer says he's heard the warnings about pesticides killing lobsters along Connecticut's shoreline for more than a decade. "Nobody seems to have paid much attention," is Bayer's sour comment.

The whole problem of the disappearance of lobsters from regions of central and western Long Island Sound is complicated by money, politics, global warming and the fear of mosquito-born diseases like West Nile virus.

Connecticut lobstermen, who have virtually lost their livelihoods in the past decade, have continued to push for prohibitions on what they see as lobster-killing pesticides.

In May, legislation to ban the use of methoprene except in "public health emergencies" passed the Connecticut House of Representatives 130-16, but died in the state Senate without a vote. One of the bill's sponsors, state Rep. Terry Backer of Stratford, says there was opposition from Connecticut health officials.

"They're more concerned about mosquito-born disease and vectors than what's happening to lobsters," Backer says.

Connecticut environmental officials continue to believe the big villain in all this is global warming and the continuing rise in water temperatures in the Sound. "Homarus americanus," our native lobster, is a cold-water crustacean and Connecticut waters are at the very southern end of its natural range.

Over the past three decades, average water temperatures along parts of the Connecticut shoreline have risen by just under 2 degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn't sound like much, but many marine scientists argue it may be enough to make lobsters more vulnerable to disease, particularly in an almost-enclosed body of water like Long Island Sound that's at the center of a massive human population.

Maine's lobster grounds, by contrast, are washed by colder open-ocean waters, and the neighboring human population (and the quantity of its pollutants) are far smaller.

"You're surrounded by the Megalopolis," says Bayer. "Look at the number of sewage treatment plants that empty into the Sound … the number of different effluents coming in from the land, from lawns, cities and farms. It's not a good situation…"

Connecticut environmental officials still believe in the global warming theory, and doubt that those insidious pesticides are a significant lobster threat.

Dave Simpson, director of marine fisheries for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), says a new study of the pesticide problem in the Sound is warranted because those recent test results were so unusual.

"This is the first time to my knowledge that pesticides have been shown to occur in lobsters," he says. "We thought it appropriate to see how pervasive a problem it is in lobsters."

"Temperature stress is the primary cause of the die-off," Simpson says. "What we found [in those latest tests on a very few ill lobsters] doesn't change our conclusion."

Not long after DEEP officials announced this month they'd found pesticides in sick lobsters, they put out a follow-up notice to seafood dealers. They wanted to make sure that people understood that "there is no reason to make any changes in the consumption or sale of Connecticut lobsters" based on the results of the latest tests.

Simpson insists it's an over-simplification to say these pesticides are lobster killers. He argues that there is still no evidence that the infinitesimal amounts of methoprene and resmethrin found so far are deadly to lobsters.

Connecticut lobstermen like Crismale have lost faith in the ability of the DEEP to handle the lobster crisis in the Sound.

Last December, a committee of Connecticut and New York lobster industry folks that answers to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission met in this state to talk about possible solutions. The commission is now proposing increased limitations on lobster harvesting in the Sound, including having a September-November ban on taking any lobsters in those waters.

Although it wasn't on the committee's agenda, those present unanimously agreed on a vote of "no confidence" in the ability of the DEEP to manage Connecticut's lobster fishery. "There were some angry guys there," says Crismale, who is co-chairman of that panel.

Simpson says he understands the anger that led to that vote. "There's been a 99 percent decline in the resource they used to make their living off of," he says. "I think it reflects the frustration of a few members of that industry."

When it comes to the pesticide issue, the reasons for that frustration are clear.

In April 2000, shortly after the huge lobster die-off occurred, an eminent University of Connecticut researcher named Hans Laufer suggested that the widespread use of methoprene in New York's anti-mosquito campaign could be the cause. The chemical prevents mosquito larvae from molting and developing into adults — and the fear is the insect-like lobsters suffer the same fate.

New York was using tons of the stuff and Connecticut was following suit, dumping methoprene in storm drains and catch basins to halt the spread of West Nile virus.

During the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Agency's fact sheet on methoprene listed the chemical as "acutely toxic to estuarine and marine invertebrates." That reference was deleted from the EPA's description in 2001.

Crismale says a 2003 study provided more evidence of the potential harmful effects of methoprene on lobsters.

But studies in Massachusetts and a 2008 report on research in Rhode Island waters appeared to back up Connecticut DEEP's contention that methoprene wasn't a major threat to lobster reproduction.

The latest tests by Connecticut researchers used new techniques that could detect pesticide concentrations as low as 1.5 parts per billion – ten times as sensitive as previous studies. And that's how they were able to find the methoprene and resmethrin in those sick Sound lobsters.

"I really don't have a lot of faith in these researchers any more," says Crismale.

"Now DEEP is telling us we have to study it again," he sighs. "How much longer do they want to study it? Two years, three years? We'll all be out of business by then."

In fact, Crismale says he's basically already done with lobsters. The boats he operates out of Branford harbor are now being used for clamming.

"I haven't been lobstering for a year," he explains. "There's just no product there."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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