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.
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."