A Knell for Lobsters On Long Island Sound

Roger Frate Jr. lowers a lobster pot in Long Island Sound off Connecticut. Nowadays most of the pots he pulls up are empty, as the sound's lobster population crashed in 1999 and has never recovered. Many lobstermen have gone out of business, and others struggle stay afloat. (Photos By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

LONG ISLAND SOUND, Conn. -- The trap buoys, orange and white, wink between the waves in this murky estuary, beckoning with the promise of the sweetest of New England's delights: lobster. As plentiful as sardines, they were. So much so that generations of Connecticut lobstermen did bang-up business trolling these waters for big and juicy jewels of the sea.

But not anymore. "Everyone thinks that lobsters only come from Maine, but it isn't so -- we had tons of lobster right here," said Roger Frate Jr., 38, yanking up one of dozens of mostly empty traps, salty and pungent with algae from the depths of western Long Island Sound. "We had great hauls. But now? These waters are a graveyard."

Something is killing the lobsters of Long Island Sound. Over the past decade, the lobster boom here has gone almost completely bust. The die-off has been so severe -- a 70 to 90 percent drop since 1998, according to scientists and state estimates -- that hundreds of lobstermen have been forced out of business. Unable to make a living in waters once as rich as bisque with crustaceans, many have had no choice but to abandon a trade that amounted to more of a cherished lifestyle than a job.

As the old lobstermen culture of Connecticut withers, desperate fishermen are hanging up their rubber waders to become boat mechanics, plumbers and landscapers. Some have declared bankruptcy. Others have sold their boats and houses in desperation, moving away. A few -- very few, including Frate and his father -- have stayed on, trying to earn a hardscrabble existence from the pitiful catch that remains.

"You don't know how this damned die-off has changed lives," said Roger Frate Sr., 62, a 40-year professional lobsterman. "Look, I've seen some of these fishermen cry. Hey, these are tough guys. But I've seen them face those empty traps and cry."

Since the lobsters began dying off almost a decade ago, the great mystery has been this: What is killing them? There is little consensus but several theories. The only thing known for sure is that the worst of the die-off occurred in 1999.

That year, these picturesque breeding grounds -- a gray estuary bordered on the southwest by the glimmering skyscrapers of Manhattan and on the west and north by the grand manses of the Connecticut shore -- went barren. In some cases, divers discovered up to a foot of dead lobsters piled on the bottom of Long Island Sound. Since then, the lobster population has continued to erode or languish, with few promising signs of a rebound.

The lobstermen here, as well as some marine biologists, have pointed at pesticides that were sprayed on the Connecticut and New York coasts in 1999 to kill mosquitoes during an outbreak of West Nile virus. The lobstermen, in fact, sued Cheminova Inc., makers of one of the most commonly used pesticides, saying that the company did not include enough of the product's environmental side effects on its labels.

The company never admitted guilt and it settled out of court this year for $12.5 million -- about 10 percent of what the plaintiffs were seeking in damages. Roger Frate Sr. and others who opposed the settlement insist that the money received, which amounted to a low- to mid-five-figure payout for most lobstermen, did not even begin to mitigate the damage.

Yet recent studies have suggested an alternative culprit, one that is profoundly controversial on these shores: global warming.

Two scientific reports have shown that warming waters in the western Sound may have seriously contributed to the die-off. One report released this summer and associated with the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) stated that "although a number of factors played a role in this die-off, warmer water temperatures seem to have set the stage."

It notes that lobsters have a maximum stress threshold of 68 degrees, yet in the summer of 1999 -- a time when the waters were particularly balmy after the region was hit by Hurricane Floyd and a tropical storm -- bottom water temperatures reached new highs for the decade. In some locations, August temperatures exceeded 74 degrees, while even October temperatures were higher than 70 degrees. At the same time, the churning of the Sound by successive storms may have affected oxygen levels.

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