Sea Grant Law Center

Crisis in the Connecticut Lobster Fishery

Peg Van Patten
Nancy Balcom

The lobstermen who harvest the waters of the Long Island Sound (LIS) estuary got a very harsh wake-up call in 1999, when they began to pull up pots full of dead and dying lobsters. The live ones seemed limp and lethargic, and died shortly thereafter. In some locations in the Western Sound, as much as 99% of the harvest was lost, affecting more than a thousand lobstermen. In all, the toll was in the hundreds of thousands of lobsters, decimating a fishery that was worth between $10 and $40 million (annual landings vary) – and that doesn't include related industry such as restaurants and tourism. This dire situation hasn't improved much to date.
The cause of these massive mortalities was unclear, but many lobstermen, putting together observations and timing of events, were certain that the shoreline application of pesticides to control mosquitoes that might carry the deadly West Nile virus was responsible. Following several human deaths as well as birds and horses, state environmental agencies in New York had performed aerosol application of Malathion in late summer. While only one human was affected in Connecticut, the virus was detected in mosquitoes and crows. Amidst fears that the disease would spread further eastward, Connecticut's towns applied Resmethrin, a pyrethroid pesticide, around the same time. Both pesticides break down very rapidly once applied.

Responding to requests for disaster aid from Governors John G. Rowland and George E. Pataki, the Secretary of Commerce William J. Daley declared the fishery a disaster, and Congress set up a $6.6 million fund for research and resource assessment in addition to $7.3 million for relief to impacted fishermen, many of whom completely lost their livelihood.

Three lobstermen from Connecticut and New York filed a lawsuit against several pesticide manufacturers, John Fox et. al vs. Cheminova, alleging that pesticides were responsible for the industry crash, with the intent to get the lawsuit accepted as a class action representing all lobstermen from the two states. The Connecticut Sea Grant College Program responded quickly to the emergency when contacted, by allocating emergency funds to veterinarian pathologists at the University of Connecticut, to perform critical autopsies on the lobsters. Autopsies revealed pinkish internal tissues, and they found that paramoeba, a tiny one-celled organism with two nuclei, had invaded lobster tissues as a parasite and inflamed the nervous system, leading to death. All sick lobsters died within 24 hours, their brain tissues consumed by the parasites. This was a tremendous breakthrough in the mystery, but what was not clear, and may never be entirely clear, was whether this parasite was the primary cause of the mortalities or whether the parasite was so successful because the lobster immune systems were perhaps already stressed from other factors.
Meanwhile, lobsters harvested from the eastern Sound, as well as from Rhode Island and Massachusetts waters, were showing increasing signs of shell disease. This disease leaves black, pitted lesions on the shell and renders the lobsters unsuitable for the live market. Caused by bacteria, shell disease eats through shell and can kill the lobster in its most severe stage. Shell-diseased lobsters are believed to be safe for consumption, but affected lobsters are sold for the less-profitable canned meat market rather than the more lucrative live market.
With the federal assistance, the Long Island Sound Lobster Mortality Research Initiative was set up as a partnership between several federal agencies (NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA Sea Grant College Program, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission), state environmental agencies (DEP, DEC), and the lobster industry. The Connecticut and New York Sea Grant programs coordinated a call for research proposals and several key symposia, inviting scientists, lobster industry members, and regulatory officials to put their heads together and try to answer a suite of questions. For example,

(1) Were the dead and sick lobsters already stressed by environmental factors that weakened their immune systems?
(2) Could the disease be part of a natural cycle that fluctuates from year to year?
(3) Can the existing population recover if the problem is solved?
(4) How many such diseases are currently occurring in Long Island Sound and what is their distribution and prevalence?
(5) What role might toxins, hypoxia, and physical factors such as temperature change play?
(6) Are the LIS lobsters a different genetic strain than other lobsters in the region?

Federal funds also provided for outreach, allowing Sea Grant extension educators to work closely with the industry and act as liaisons with the research community. The lobstermen's lawsuit was filed without waiting for the prolonged period of time necessary in order for the scientists to get their funding and proceed with their work. In all, 17 major research projects were funded, following a national call for proposals. The Connecticut and New York Sea Grant programs funded researchers from those two states as well as from California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Virginia.

At the first symposium, when scientists, fishermen, and agency officials shared their observations, it was found that a third pesticide could be suspect and should be examined. Methoprene is a pesticide that kills mosquito larvae. It is used in a timed-release, solid briquette form, placed in fresh water lakes and in storm drains. Methoprene, considered by many town officials to be harmless, was shown to be chemically analogous to a key hormone affecting many physiological processes, that earlier Connecticut Sea Grant-funded research had found in both insects and crustaceans. While methoprene was never directly put into Long Island Sound per se, it could possibly have entered via overflow during storm events. Thus a third pesticide was added to the research investigation list.

Subpoenas are not exactly familiar events for most Sea Grant staff, so some Sea Grant communicators, extension staff, and researchers were somewhat surprised to be subpoenaed and deposed by lawyers representing one or more parties to the lawsuit, in the course of collecting information on the die-off. The first year of the two-year research program has now ended, and the preliminary results are finally beginning to put together the pieces of this puzzle. The Sea Grant programs have published a Lobster Health Newsletter, available on the LIS lobster information website maintained by New York Sea Grant, at . Preliminary results were presented at the Third LIS Lobster Health Symposium, held in Bridgeport, Connecticut on March 7, 2003. Final results are not due in for another six to twelve months, however.

Nature is never black and white, and it looks as though many intertwining factors including warmer temperatures, possibly tied to global warming, and sporadic storm events may have contributed to the mortalities. On the other hand, lobsters stressed by anthropogenic inputs into the estuary can't fight off disease as well. Scientists are finding lethal effects from the pesticides being tested at very tiny concentrations, varying with the ambient conditions, life stage of the lobsters, and so on. What is not clear and may never be clear is exactly how much if any undegraded pesticide actually reached the lobsters on the Sound's bottom. Anthropogenic factors in play include the various brands, formulas, and amounts of pesticides applied in the two states, existing chronic hypoxia problems and localized toxins. It is still unclear how the parasitic paramoeba fits into the picture. These are all complicated by physical factors such as the timing, winds, currents, sinking rates, influence of natural events such as storms and flooding, and so on, all combining into a very convoluted tapestry. Many of the experiments showed that sustained above-average water temperatures induced stress in the lobsters and may have increased their susceptibility to other factors. The lobsters are at the southern limit of their temperature tolerance in Long Island Sound, and a summer warming to 22 degrees C can kill them by itself. In addition, some pesticides tested have higher mortalities at warmer temperatures, and application is going to take place in late summer when mosquitoes are very active. Confounding the legal liability issue is the fact that the pesticides used, while all intended for mosquitoes that inhabit wetland environments, generally instruct the user not to apply the product in or near water bodies. Litigation is still in progress on the issue, and at press time the federal judge determined the lawsuit could proceed as a class action.

State agencies are between a rock and a hard place when they must make decisions that balance human health threats (West Nile and Equine Encephalitis viruses carried by mosquitoes) with the health of valuable living resources and their estuarine habitat. As for temperatures and storm events, we cannot change Mother Nature much, other than issues already being addressed in the context of global warming. Hopefully these detailed scientific specifics provided by this suite of studies will help resource managers and scientists to better understand the effects of natural and anthropogenic stressors on lobsters and can help facilitate the sustained recovery of the resource over time, in concert with the lobstermen in Connecticut and New York. We hope that the Long Island Sound lobster industry can recover, but resource assessments and landings data show that the recovery has not yet begun. It will clearly take time that lobstermen hoping to hang on to their traditional livelihoods may not be able to afford.


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