Heat, not toxins, killing lobsters

The headline of Nick Crismale's Aug. 27 guest column, "Too much study and no action to save lobster fishery, " sounds very compelling, but let's keep our facts straight about what lobster mortality studies have actually concluded to date.

The key findings of the 1999 lobster die-off research published in the Journal of Shellfish Research were that "sustained, above average temperature was a driving force behind a snowball effect… (causing the lobster deaths)." They continue: pesticides "could not have been high enough to cause adult lobster mortality throughout (the Sound) in 1999."

Lobster is a cold water species. Temperatures above 68 degrees are stressful to lobsters and can be lethal. This summer is the warmest on record and water temperatures in the Sound soared to 75 degrees. Not surprisingly reports of dead lobsters are coming in.

In contrast to the abundant resource found in the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine, the lobster population throughout southern New England has declined markedly over the last 10-15 years - from the shallowest bays to the offshore canyons. Full stock collapse has occurred in warmer waterbodies like Long Island Sound. The vast majority of fishermen in the Sound, including Mr. Crismale, were forced to leave lobstering as there are simply not enough lobsters left to catch.

Stock assessment scientists working under the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the body empowered by Congress to manage American lobster stocks, attribute the continued decline in lobster abundance here to "a combination of environmental drivers and continued fishing mortality." They urged an easing of the near 50 percent annual harvest rate. These conclusions and recommendations were supported by two international panels of lobster/shellfish population experts.

Sadly, we have to acknowledge our waters are warming and accept the fact that likely means our local lobster stock will continue to be less productive than it once was. There is no credible science, however, to support the notion that pesticides are responsible for the depleted state of our lobster resource. Through a new study with University of Connecticut researchers we will learn whether trace pesticides recently found in some lobsters collected last fall is common, persist over time, and if those trace amounts actually impair lobster health in any way.

While this research will yield helpful information, it is not enough to just study the problem until the entire resource is gone. We need action to preserve and build upon what remains of our local population. We need to find a longer view than the one that brought us to the depleted stock condition we have today. Consider what our lobster resource and commercial fishery might look like today had we shown some restraint since 1999 and harvested only half of the 20 million pounds removed by fishing, leaving 10 million to grow and reproduce.

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's two track approach to addressing the lobster crisis is the most logical and productive approach: studies to increase our understanding of the potential role pesticides may play in lobster health and staying the course on conservation efforts to leave more lobsters in the water to grow and reproduce by modestly reducing fishing mortality to more sustainable levels.

David Simpson is director of Connecticut's Marine Fisheries Division.

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