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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Are lobsters at risk again?



By Gregory B. Hladky
Capitol Bureau Chief
HARTFORD
— Connecticut lobstermen and marine scientists are fearful that Long Island Sound may be suffering from another “die-out” of the kind that wiped out 80 percent of the Sound’s lobsters in 1999.
Nicholas Crismale, president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen’s Association, said Monday he’s had reports of pockets of dead lobsters off the Thames River and as far south as the Darien shore.
“I don’t think there was a lobster fisherman in the Sound that was able to sustain his expenses last year,” said Crismale, a Guilford resident. “This resource has been decimated to the point where recovery in the long term may be very difficult.”
“We do have a crisis up and down the coast,” said Peter Consiglio, a Branford lobsterman. “There’s something going on and we don’t know what it is.”
Eric M. Smith, director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said state officials began to receive reports last fall of lobsters showing stress and disease problems similar to 1999.
Smith said scientists believe warmer water in the Sound was a key trigger in the 1999 lobster die-off, causing stress that turned other factors such as pesticides and pollution lethal. The Sound’s lobster population still hasn’t recovered from the 1999 event, Smith said, making the current die-off more critical.
According to Smith, summer 2007 was “a pretty bad temperature year” in the Sound. He said global warming could well be playing a role, since Sound lobsters are at the extreme southern end of their natural range.
Smith said fishermen complain pesticides must be the root cause of the latest die-off, but scientists haven’t been able to document pesticides as the killer.
“We’re a little perplexed,” Smith said of pesticides claims. “We don’t know what’s killing them.”
Smith warned members of Connecticut’s Long Island Sound Task Force that the current trend for lobsters in the Sound is grim.
“If the mortality rate continues in Long Island Sound for the next 10-15 years, we won’t have a lobster fishery,” Smith said.
Former state Sen. George L. “Doc” Gunther, R-Stratford, a long-time supporter of efforts to protect the Sound, said he’s had complaints from a lot of Connecticut lobstermen and Long Island fishermen, as well. “We’re getting people in New York saying they’ve stopped fishing” because there are so few lobsters, said Gunther.
Gunther said many Sound lobstermen believe renewed spraying on Long Island of pesticides designed to kill mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus may be responsible for the new lobster die-off.
Gunther said there are some researchers who now believe even minute amounts of some pesticides can affect lobsters’ immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to many diseases.
In 2004, the conclusion of a conference of marine scientists was that a “perfect storm” of high water temperatures, low oxygen levels in the water and toxic ammonias and sulfides contributed to the ’99 die-off. Weakened lobsters were left vulnerable to tiny parasites and “shell disease” that killed hundreds of thousands of lobsters in the Sound in a very short period of time.
“The warm water theory just doesn’t sit well with the fishermen,” said Crismale. “I believe it’s pesticide impact.”Crismale said that, if it were simply high water temperatures, lobsters could have escaped by migrating to deeper, colder sections of the Sound. “But we’re not catching them in deeper waters, either,” he said.
Consiglio said he’s afraid some in the public will unfairly blame lobstermen for the latest decline. “It’s not the fishermen,” he insisted. “We’re doing everything in our power to cooperate with the state.”
Lobstermen and state officials alike say the one great hope for restoring the lobster population in the Sound is a $1 million program authorized in 2006 to mark female and male lobsters over a certain size and return them to the water to boost breeding stock.
SSmith said the target of the “V-Notch” program was to mark and return 60,000 breeding lobsters to the Sound.mith said the “one bright side” of the Sound lobster situation was an abundance of lobster larvae recorded in 2007. But he added it could take five to six years before it will be known if those lobsters will reach maturity.
Gregory B. Hladky can be contacted at ghladky@nhregister.com or at (860) 524-0719.

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