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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)

Scientists leaning toward the global warming theory argue that the storms had a catastrophic effect because Sound lobsters were growing increasingly stressed by decades of warming waters. Temperatures in the Sound, particularly in the western half farther from cooling Atlantic water, have been rising for years as air temperatures have increased in the northeast by a rate of nearly 0.5 degrees per decade since the 1970s, according to the UCS study. Last year, for instance, average water temperatures around the Millstone Power Station -- a key measuring point for Sound water temperatures -- reached their highest average temperatures in more than a century.

The theory, advocates say, fits with the fact that lobster harvesting has reached record levels in Maine, where the warming of that state's far colder coast has lifted the temperatures into a range more conducive to lobster growth.

"What we found was that the concentrations of pesticides in the water could not have been high enough to be lethal to lobsters," said Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut's Sea Grant program and a lead researcher on a major 2005 study of the die-off published in the Journal of Shellfish Research. "Instead, we're probably looking at a combination of factors."

He continued: "What you can say is that the western Sound is at the southernmost range for [coastal] lobsters, and it's very likely that the impact of warming waters would be seen here first. I'd have to say that global warming, based on common sense, is the strongest argument."

Fish tales, counter the lobstermen. Even some lobster experts insist the coincidence of the 1999 catastrophic die-off occurring the same year as heavy pesticide spraying simply cannot be ignored.

"Look, those waters have been warm before in summers past, real warm, and nothing like this has ever happened," said Lance Stewart, a lobster expert at the University of Connecticut. "It's crazy to suggest this is somehow linked to global warming. It was the pesticides, pure and simple."

Regardless of the reason, the lobster die-off has devastated lives along the graceful Connecticut shoreline of lighthouses and chowder huts. As many as 400 lobstermen made a living here in 1998, a time when the storied industry was worth an estimated $12.1 million a year. Today, only a few dozen lobstermen are left, and the industry's value has dropped to about $4 million, much of which still goes to middlemen and retailers, according to state statistics and lobstermen groups.

It has torn men with salt in their blood from the sea. Many received additional compensation through grants from the National Marine Fisheries Service. But for most, it was not enough to stay afloat.

After a life spent lobstering, Anthony Coviello, 63, had fully anticipated that he would be close to retiring about now. But when the bust happened, he and his wife were forced to sell their house, car and lobster boat. They recently relocated to Naples, Fla. There, he is still struggling to find work while they try to make ends meet on his wife's salary from a job with the local school system.

"You know, lobster was our life," he said. "But when they disappeared, we lost the business, we lost everything. I can't tell you how much I miss it. Not being out on the water every day. You know, the sun, the wind. It was a great life."

Lobstermen such as Roger Frate Sr. have fought to survive by becoming better businessmen. The family used to operate three lobster boats, whose catch would stock the tanks at their quaint seafood market in Darien, Conn. These days, they are down to one lobster boat, having retired one and refitted another for clamming. Their wholesale business has largely dried up. But he has hired a cook at the market, and is now focusing on retail sales, buying lobster from Maine to augment the paltry local catch.

"We just don't know if the lobsters are going to come back," he said. "I can't even talk about it sometimes. It's hard, very hard."

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