It began when lobstermen throughout the Long Island Sound began pulling up their pots empty last fall. As the climax to an especially productive decade, the fishery had spiraled in a swift and devastating collapse.
The parasite now pinpointed for the massive die-off of commercial lobsters already existed in the Sound, but had multiplied in the weakened crustaceans, attacking their nervous systems and sweeping through the population at an unprecedented rate. Now the $40 million question seems to be whether the protozoan predator had help from an increasingly degraded ecosystem.
The Sound is notorious for its multiple stresses. New York City has been sued over sewer discharge violations, and extensive chemical spraying was called into question after an encephalitis scare late last summer. Add the pesticide hydrocarbons persisting in bottom sediment, the increased nitrogen load from point and nonpoint source pollution and a little heat from the long, dry summer to further lower the level of dissolved oxygen, and, according to Soundkeeper Terry Backer, who heads a nonprofit advocacy group, you “really have something cooking.”
“The Sound dies the death of a thousand cuts,” says Backer, a veteran lobsterman who also serves in the Connecticut legislature. “It bleeds a little here and there, with no one thing that necessarily buries it. The lobster die-off,” he adds, “is a big cut.”
The quantity of lobsters lost already numbers in the millions, and the count is by no means over. The most devastating, and as yet unmeasured, impacts might be to egg-bearing females, and sub-legal or short lobsters, potentially affecting the fishery for years to come. The total economic loss to the region has been so far estimated between $30 and $40 million, and the effect has trickled down to businesses reliant on the industry all along the coast.
In January, after weighing the extent of the damage, U.S. Commerce Secretary William M. Daley declared the commercial lobster fishery a failure in Long Island Sound. This status frees up funds from the federal year 2000 supplemental budget to provide disaster relief for the 1,100 registered lobstermen who are suddenly facing the loss of their livelihoods, and to further research the cause of the die-off.
The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), together with the University of Connecticut, continue their search for the real culprit behind the failed fishery. It will be easier said than done. “The loss of lobsters was dramatic,” says Mike Horvath, president of the Western Long Island Sound Lobstermen’s Association, “but the decline of the Sound has been happening for years.”