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State's lobster industry in hot water

Published July 06. 2013 4:00AM

Whether you're visiting Connecticut or you live here, chances are you've enjoyed a steaming lobster served with drawn butter or a roll stuffed with lobster meat.

You've ordered lobsters at a seafood shack like Abbott's in Noank or Captain Scott's in New London or bought some off the docks of Stonington and boiled them at home.

Lobsters are a vital part of the southeastern Connecticut culture. They also provide a significant boost to the economy; a 2006 study by Connecticut Sea Grant estimated lobster landing revenues at $3.9 million, with a total impact of $7.4 million to the state's marine economy.

But lobsters in Connecticut are in trouble, dying at unprecedented rates in Long Island Sound, and the steps to reverse this trend - as drastic as they appear - may be too late.

This fall, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will close the lobster fishery in the state for three months. Any lobster you buy during that time will come from elsewhere.

The closure is the state's answer to a federal mandate to reduce lobster harvest by 10 percent a year. Connecticut is not the only state that has noticed a reduction in lobster population, although the reasons for the decline vary. Some speculate that the pesticides used to kill mosquitoes have leached from freshwater swamps and streams into the ocean. Methoprene and resmethrin have been detected in lobster tissue, although the state maintains on its mosquito control website that methoprene "does not persist in the environment."

Some studies suggest that the pesticide damages adult lobsters' ability to molt, making them vulnerable to predators. Last month, the legislature passed a bill to ban the use of the pesticides for mosquito control in coastal areas.

Not everyone is convinced that mosquito abatement is to blame for the lobsters' problems. Others point to global warming, and scientists have measured increased water temperatures from Long Island Sound to Narragansett Bay. The Long Island Sound Study, a partnership of Connecticut and New York organizations, reports that the Millstone Environmental Lab has recorded an increase in average seasonal water temperatures in Niantic Bay in Waterford over the last 30 years.

This increase has made the environment more palatable to some species, but has prompted others to find cooler waters.

It makes no sense to reduce fishing effort if the cause of lobsters' dying is not understood, or if steps aren't taken to lessen the impact of those causes.

Certainly Connecticut's ban on mosquito pesticides will provide an opportunity to test the theory that pesticides are the cause. Rising water temperatures cannot be addressed so easily, however.

As U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said during a panel discussion last year, "The lobsters are maybe a warning about something that is happening in the Sound which is very dire and dangerous whether they are dying off from water temperatures, pesticides or some other phenomenon."

In Maine, a public information campaign was unveiled for the Fourth of July to rally support for President Obama's carbon reduction plan. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and various trade groups are behind the campaign to demonstrate how important lobstering is to the Maine economy, where it's a $338 million business, and to make the connection between warming waters and declining lobster populations.

Whatever the cause of the their decline, a multitude of approaches may be needed to preserve the traditional fishery. Besides closed seasons, regulatory tools include V-notching, in which female lobsters are marked and returned to the water, and increases in minimum sizes.

A public relations campaign like Maine's also is an option to educate the public about the connection between carbon pollution and warmer waters. But whatever strategies are employed, they will be only temporary unless the cause of the decline is addressed.

Otherwise we may have to say goodbye to all things lobster - baked, stuffed, or boiled.

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