Time to get serious about lobster declines

The troubling news that lobsters are continuing to disappear from Long Island Sound at an alarming rate reinforces the urgent need for a comprehensive state study and, if necessary, tough new environmental regulations.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection reported Tuesday that lobster "landings'' - the amount commercial lobstermen take in from traps - have sunk from a healthy 3.7 million pounds in 1998 to a sparse 142,000 pounds last year. In the 14 years leading up to 1998, landings had averaged 2.3 million pounds, making last year's meager total even more disturbing.

During the most recent legislative session ending in May, the state House of Representatives passed a bill introduced by State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Noank, that would have restricted the use and application of the pesticide methoprene in coastal areas.

Scientists believe methoprene, one of three pesticides used to control mosquitoes by preventing them from maturing and reproducing, may have an adverse affect on lobsters. They also suspect rising water temperatures, runoff from fertilizers, general chemical contamination and bacterial infections could be contributing to declines in the lobster population.

In the rush to pass a state budget last spring the State Senate failed to take up Rep. Wright's legislation and the measure died.

Lawmakers must not ignore this critical issue in the upcoming session.

Rep. Wright said Wednesday that while she was disappointed the measure stalled in May she plans to reintroduce lobster-protection legislation after the new session convenes in January - assuming she is re-elected in November. She hoped information from new studies will make the case for limiting the application of methoprene even stronger.

This newspaper is encouraged that DEEP Commissioner Daniel C. Esty, in announcing the lobster declines, outlined details of a comprehensive study he hopes will pinpoint the cause or causes of the die-off more clearly and recommend specific remedies.

This summer the DEEP will begin collecting lobsters from throughout the Sound from lobstermen and local buyers, and then analyze tissue samples at University of Connecticut labs.

As always, there may be conflicts, especially if pesticides emerge as the main culprit. Mosquitoes can carry Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) and West Nile Virus; public health authorities may have to weigh the benefits of limiting the spread of such potentially deadly diseases versus the risks of killing more lobsters.

Some of the pesticides are also used to control deer ticks, which can carry Lyme disease.

In addition, if contamination by other chemicals emerge as the main factor, regulators must then determine how best to remove them.

Often times such treatment is expensive and only achieved after extensive litigation, as was the situation when General Electric was forced to dredge the Hudson River to remove PCBs that it had dumped for decades, contaminating striped-bass spawning grounds.

Pesticide bans also are difficult to impose and enforce, but like the PCB cleanup that gradually has improved stripers and bluefish, they can produce positive results.

Most notable was the 1972 ban of the pesticide DDT that led to the comeback of the bald eagle and many other large birds.

We New Englanders prize the lobster almost as highly as the rest of the country treasures the eagle as its national symbol.

But lobsters are more than tasty crustaceans, valued by commercial and recreational fishermen to be consumed at the dinner table. They also can be canaries in the coal mine whose increasing death rate should serve as warnings to other species, including humans.

We must ensure they rebound and thrive in Long Island Sound.

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