A stack of files piled a foot high rests on Roger Frate’s legs as he attempts to explain 13 years of advocacy against the chemical pesticides that he says are ruining the Long Island Sound lobster fishery. Each file holds records Frate has collected after spending thousands of hours in meetings across the East Coast, trying to end the use of chemical pesticides that kill mosquitoes to control the spread of West Nile virus.
Pesticides were found in a number of lobsters caught a few miles off the coast of Norwalk last September. Study results weren’t complete until May, and didn’t go public until July. Newspaper reports jarred the market, with people canceling orders and refusing to buy lobsters, said Mike Theiler, a lobsterman out of New London and president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen’s Association.
The state emphasized there is no health risk to humans because the pesticides were found only in the liver, or tomalley, and would not be present in the meat. “The biggest issue right now is making sure the public understands the lobster are still safe to eat,” said David Simpson, director of marine fisheries at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “The advisories have not changed at all.”
But Theiler considers the state’s actions irresponsible and questions the entire process. “These lobsters were caught 10 months ago,” Theiler said. “Why come out with this study now at the height of the season? It’s counterproductive to the whole industry. It’s not run like a business.”
Simpson added that it wasn’t until March that the state decided to test for the presence of pesticides. Necropsies revealed no evidence that the pesticides had harmed the crustaceans’ immune system. Out of 10 lobsters caught for the study, only one was visibly healthy, Simpson said, although it tested positive for resmethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid found in certain Raid-brand insecticides and also used by New York and Connecticut for mosquito control to combat West Nile Virus in 1999 — the same year lobsters died by the millions.
Another lobster tested positive for methoprene, a popular chemical used by New York and Connecticut to inhibit the growth of mosquito larvae into adults. It’s sometimes applied directly to storm drains where mosquitoes incubate, although this application method no longer happens in Connecticut, according to Roger Wolfe, president of the Northeastern Mosquito Control Association and manager of the state’s Mosquito Management Program.
“The states are doing very little [pesticide spraying] right now,” Wolfe said, adding that Connecticut uses mostly BTI, which is a bacterial insecticide, and only goes after adult mosquitoes with stronger chemicals if there’s a public health concern.
Finding methoprene and resmethrin in the lobsters has some scientists stumped. Because these chemicals have relatively short half lives of no more than 30 days — meaning 50% of the chemical by weight will degrade by that time — and because both degrade quickly in water, state officials are unsure how these pesticides made it into the lobster.
“That’s part of why we’re so surprised to even find the compounds in the sound,” Simpson said. “Not to mention these were mid-sound collections, and somewhat removed from the likely places from where these chemicals could be applied.”
Frate, a native Darienite and 40-plus year lobsterman who owns Darien Seafood, is not surprised. “We’ve been screaming pesticides for 13 years and now they come out with this,” he said. “It’s a disgrace.”
The official cause of the 1999 die-off was attributed to a confluence of low oxygen levels, warm water, and a paramoeba that infected the lobster’s brain. The presence of pesticides is seen as a potential contributor, but there was no smoking gun, according to state officials.
Frate and Dr. Robert Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, which tested the effects of pesticides on the lobster after the die-off, see things differently.
“I thought it was pesticides,” Bayer said. “Based on what fishermen told me, when they saw them dying, it showed signs of classic pesticide poisoning.”
Dr. Richard French, a veterinary pathologist at the University of New Hampshire who identified the paramoeba in the dead lobster, maintains it was the microorganism that killed the lobsters in 1999.
“I also understand the issue of environmental contaminants and it goes much beyond pesticides, which we looked to address in a comprehensive assessment of the lobster in earlier studies,” French stated in an email.
Seventeen research teams from seven states reported three years of research that pointed to warm waters as triggering problems leading to the die-off.
“That’s hogwash,” Frate said. “They don’t die in warm water. They run from warm water. They adapt.” Frate said fishermen in Maine and Rhode Island are catching lobsters that were tagged by the Long Island Sound’s v-notch program, evidence of the lobsters movements.
Research on resmethrin suggests that it could kill a lobster submerged in water containing 0.095 parts per billion (ppb), according to Sylvain De Guise, director of the Sea Grant program at the University of Connecticut. “Based on water models, it is believed that concentrations of resmethrin reached 0.39 ppb to 0.54 ppb in some locations on the bottom, which may have had lethal effect on larvae and immune effect on adults in Long Island Sound in 1999,” stated the summary report drafted by the research teams.
The resmethrin concentrations found in the lobsters last September ranged from 21 to 72 ppb, Simpson said. The one lobster that tested positive for methoprene had a concentration of 264 ppb, although that number was likely high because of how the chemical is biomagnified once absorbed into the body, according to Simpson.
Resmethrin is classified by the EPA as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” based on “increased incidences of benign and malignant liver tumors in female rats and male mice.”
Resmethrin is “very highly toxic” to freshwater and estuarine fish, and is also highly toxic to bees. Resmethrin is registered for use as a spray in food-handling and storing operations, and the EPA has established a general tolerance of three parts per million for resmethrin in or on food.
Simpson, from the state’s marine fisheries division, said it’s time to take a closer look at how insecticides interact with the lobster, which is an arthropod, the same phylum classification as insects.
“Now we see [pesticides] can possibly go into the sound,” Simpson said, “we need to take a much closer look at not only the source, but what effects do they have on lobsters themselves.”
Frate said this study should have happened 13 years ago. Simpson emphasized people should not be afraid to eat lobster, as the chemicals are only present in liver and fatty tissue, not in the lean meat. Given EPA regulations, it’s possible that some non-organic foods have higher concentrations of resmethrin than the lobsters in the study.
The sound contributes roughly $8 billion annually to the regional economy through commercial and recreational activities, according to the Long Island Sound Study program. Commercial fishing in Connecticut is an $80 million annual industry, according to the state. Lobstermen estimate they are losing $18 million a year because of the declining lobster population.
Next: Learn about how the state and lobstermen are trying to save the Long Island Sound lobster, and how climate change is affecting the rebound.