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A fisherman's perspective.


Late spring 1996 was the first incidence of shell disease observed by Rhode Island lobster fishermen. Shell-diseased lobsters had never been observed in Rhode Island waters before this time. I say this after speaking with lobstermen whose parents and grandparents were lifelong lobstermen here in Rhode Island. Coincidently, on January 19th of that same year, the worst oil spill in Rhode Island's history occurred, with nearly 1 million gal home heating oil inundating the state's south shore. The fishing grounds were closed while the cleanup efforts were underway, and after some time, the fishing grounds were reopened. Shortly thereafter, the first lobsters infected with shell disease appeared in the catch.

Some people would have you believe increased water temperature and climate change are the culprits of shell disease. These factors very well may have contributed to the spread and severity of the disease by further stressing the animals in later years as temperatures began to rise. One only needs to look to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Technical Committee document Recruitment Failure in the Southern New England Lobster Stock to debunk this theory. As noted on page 3, temperatures started to increase in 1999, 3 y after shell disease was first observed in Rhode Island waters. Found on page 17 of this same document are tables of water temperatures from the region and the years they were recorded. The first shell-diseased lobster that I caught was in late spring 1996 in the mouth of the West Passage of Narragansett Bay. By 1999, shell disease was a very common occurrence in some locations of Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

Fast-forward to early fall 1999, and the massive lobster die-off in Long Island Sound occurred. Incidentally, during late summer 1999, the first cases of West Nile Virus were diagnosed in New York City. Tragically, 7 elderly patients lost the battle to the virus. At this point it was deemed necessary to reduce mosquito populations in the region to protect human health. The southern New England states began aggressive mosquito abatement programs, and these programs are still in effect today. That fall, the remnants of Hurricane Floyd moved over Long Island Sound, bringing heavy rains and washing many of these pesticides into the Sound. Within days of the event, thousands of lobsters started coming up dead and dying in the traps of the fishermen who fished there. Here in Rhode Island, it was decided to treat most of the state's storm drain basins with a larvicide known as Altosid, although this practice was probably not put into place until spring 2000. The active ingredient in this pesticide is methoprene. The thousands of storm drains around Rhode Island all eventually drain into Narragansett Bay and other tributaries that lead to Rhode Island Sound.

Methoprene is a known endocrine disruptor and is lethal to stage 1 lobster larvae at 1 part per billion. Methoprene is also lighter than water and therefore stratifies the surface of the water to which it is applied. Lobsters begin their lives on and near the surface of the waters where they are hatched. There is evidence of other endocrine-disrupting chemicals impacting the lobster resource, such as alkylphenols, used in the production of plastic bottles and such. Simple things that seem harmless, like antibacterial soaps, contain endocrinedisrupting chemicals. Our society has deemed it appropriate to treat wastewaters at sewer treatment plants with chlorine and the like to kill the bacteria it contains. These waters are then discharged into one tributary or another, and they ultimately end up in the ocean. This process does nothing to remove pharmaceutical drugs or harmful endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are also contained in these wastewaters. Lobster fishermen are convinced that lobsters are the canary in the coal mine.

I have been a long-time observer of Narragansett Bay, first playing in and around it as a child, and later pursuing a career as a commercial fisherman. In the 30+ y of observations, the bay and the waterfront have changed dramatically. The island of Jamestown was once dotted with small summer cottages, as were most of the waterfront properties surrounding the bay. Today, nearly all these cottages have been torn down and replaced with mega homes. Many have landscaping suitable for the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. I wonder what chemicals are used to maintain these beautiful landscapes. The bay's waters have also changed dramatically in appearance and content. In my early years on the bay, the waters were frequently the color of tea or coffee. Today, the bay looks more like a swimming pool than an estuary. The bay's resident species are also very different. Winter flounder were once very abundant; today, they are almost nonexistent, even after many years of a total harvest moratorium.

We currently have a single-species management strategy in place that manages all species to some high level of abundance, without consideration for the fact that big fish eat little fish. All species cannot coexist at these high levels without one species or another paying the price. At the time of this writing, our oceans are grossly out of balance. Dogfish are so abundant it has made it almost impossible for fishermen to work on some of their traditional grounds. These reports come from all sectors of the fishing community--both nearshore and off, commercial and recreational. I, personally, have had to give up fishing in some areas that were once some of my best lobster-producing grounds. At other times, it was black sea bass that caused me to give up fishing in an area. In some places in late summer and early fall, all I can catch is a trap full of sea bass that are closed to harvest at this time, or have a very small possession limit. These fish routinely regurgitate their stomach contents on the ride up. To no surprise, they more often than not expel lobsters and crabs. Many of the managed species of finfish are at or above their targeted thresholds, as science has deemed it necessary to be considered a rebuilt stock.

Unfortunately, the mortality that lobstermen inflict on the resource is the only mortality fisheries managers are willing to address. The big talk these days is ecosystem management, yet managers only pick the low-hanging fruit--fishing mortality. Rhode Island lobstermen believe environmental contaminants are responsible for the onset of shell disease. Shell disease, along with heavy predation, are the leading causes for lower lobster abundance in southern New England inshore waters, in our opinion.

The disease has taken a heavy toll on the resource and the fishermen it once supported. The fleet is less than half of what it once was. The lobsters that were the most valuable part of the catch before shell disease are now the least valuable because of their unsightly appearance. The reason being, lobsters are most valuable when they have not molted for some time and therefore have a very hard shell. As much as 30% (pers. observation) of the catch may show signs of the disease in the spring before the molt begins. Many molt successfully out of the diseased shell, but are no longer as valuable because of their "new shell" status.

In my humble opinion, it is surprising that lobsters are holding up as well as they are. Lobsters can escape predators; they cannot avoid the onslaught of chemicals and pollutants that we, as a society, are introducing into our oceans and tributaries. Just think about the toxic cocktail that is released into our inshore waters on a daily basis. I truly believe lobsters were subject to a contaminant in 1996 that allowed the disease to get a foothold. Mix in endocrine-disrupting chemicals, mosquito abatement programs, coastal development, increased wastewater treatment, unbalanced fish stocks, and climate change with the associated increase in water temperature, and I personally have no need to wonder why lobster stocks are declining.

DOI: 10.2983/035.031.0218


President, Rhode Island Lobstermen's Association

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Author:Dellinger, Lanny
Publication:Journal of Shellfish Research
Geographic Code:1U1RI
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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