Scientists Puzzled Over Dying Lobsters

Twelve days ago, Joe Fink named his newborn baby girl after his fishing boat, Rebecca. This week he had to put his daughter’s namesake up for sale.

“I hated doing it. I built it myself,” says Fink, who is president of the Western Long Island Lobsterman Association. “But I realized I had to. Right now there’s just no future.”

Fink is one of the hundreds of lobstermen in New York and Connecticut who have been forced to abandon lobstering as the insect-like crustaceans disappear from Long Island Sound. State officials estimate that 11 million lobsters or 90 percent of the entire population died in the Sound last fall. This summer, the main money-making season for most lobstermen, the crustaceans are again a no-show.

The losses are significant since the Sound usually generates about $45 million in annual sales and is the nation’s third-largest lobster source, behind Maine and Massachusetts.

“It’s way worse,” says Jeff Carbone, a lobster distributor based in Huntington, New York, who says he’s taking in 80 percent fewer lobsters than last summer. “I had 25 lobstermen supplying me, now I’ve got eight. These guys just don’t want to take any chances.”

So Far, One Parasite

The cause of the die-off has befuddled scientists ever since lobsters started disappearing in large numbers last September. The only definitive finding so far is that of a protozoan parasite that University of Connecticut veterinary pathologist Richard French located in all 150-200 lobsters he sampled from the Sound last fall.

“It would be unusual to see such a massive mortality associated with a single parasite,” says French. “But it’s not out of the question.”

But many lobstermen think a single parasite is hardly the only problem. They are convinced the die-off is related to mosquito sprayings in Connecticut and New York. Both states border the Sound and have conducted sprayings to prevent the spread of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. Lobstermen associations from the Long Island Sound region are now working on a class action suit that they expect to file against New York and Connecticut by the end of the summer.

“We’ve done everything by the book,” says Fink, “and our livelihood was taken away from us. We feel the problem was manmade and we need to be paid for our suffering.”

At least one scientist working on the problem is starting to think the lobstermen’s suspicions may be right.

Vulnerable Like Insects

Robert Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, examined sickly lobsters from the Sound last September, looking for bacteria and viruses. When none turned up, Bayer then tested the lobsters’ systems for traces of the pesticide malathion, which was sprayed in New York last summer in an effort to keep mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus at bay. That also turned up negative. But now Bayer says he thinks pesticides may be a cause and the parasite might be a secondary problem for already stressed lobsters.

“We didn’t find any malathion in the lobsters we had, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there,” says Bayer.

Bayer points out that New York and Connecticut have used at least two other kinds of pesticides besides malathion. The states have sprayed low concentrations of resmethrin and sumethrin. Both are synthetic pesticides similar to a natural pesticide produced by chrysanthemum flowers that kill insects by attacking their nervous systems.

The problem, Bayer says, is mosquitoes and lobsters are very similar.

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