Last lobstermen battle bureaucrats and each other as fishery struggles to rebound

It’s been eight months since Darienite Roger Frate checked his lobster pots in the western Long Island Sound. Why?

“Financially, we can’t do it,” Frate said, throwing his hands in the air. Instead, the 40-plus year lobsterman is trying his hands at clams and oysters, which he said haven’t been too bad lately.

Recalling his tribulations over the past decade, Frate’s gritty voice sputters out like an old diesel airplane engine cranking up its pistons. Always animated, Frate, who owns Darien Seafood, has seen his share of ups and downs. The lobster die-off of 1999 eviscerated the lobster stock and put hundreds of lobstermen out of work and affected thousands of others who rely on the fishery for their livelihoods. Frate is one of the last to remain active in the western sound, which has suffered the worst declines.

Since 1998, lobster landings in the western basin have dropped every year with few exceptions, according to data from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. In 1998, more than 1.8 million pounds of lobster were caught, but in 2011, that number shrunk to 18,221 — a 99% decline.

“We’re still hanging in there,” said Frate, who is president of the Western End of Long Island Sound Lobster Association. The situation throughout the sound isn’t much better. Connecticut lobster landings have fallen by 96% since 1998, going from 3.7 million pounds to only 142,000 pounds last year.

Few people agree on what’s causing the decline. The popular theory is that a lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, and warmer water temperatures are making the lobsters more susceptible to disease, causing them to die or leave waters that don’t agree with the lobsters’ physiology.

Frate, however, believes that anti-mosquito pesticides are to blame. The state’s environmental department recently found small traces of resmethrin and methoprene in lobsters caught off the coast of Norwalk last September, leading the department to formally study the effects of pesticides on lobsters, which are arthropods, the same scientific phylum classification as insects.

Whether pesticides are the culprit or not, the curveballs keep swerving at Connecticut’s dwindling breed of blue-collar seafood catchers. Waters were closed for a week after recent heavy rains caused bacteria levels in the sound to reach unsafe levels, leaving hundreds of fishermen on dry land until the bacteria equalized.

At the time of the lobster die-off, there were 445 licensed lobstermen in Connecticut. Today there are roughly 130 commercial lobstermen in Connecticut, down from a high of 707 in 1980. Many lobstermen lost their homes or ended up divorced, said Norwalk lobsterman Tony Carlo. Carlo didn’t renew his lobster fishing license this year for the first time in more than three decades.

“It’s just not feasible to go out there,” said Carlo, who has since started a landscaping company with his brother.

In the eastern sound, the story is a bit different. At least this year, according to lobsterman Mike Theiler, vice president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen’s Association and co-chairman of Connecticut’s Seafood Council.

“I think right now, the lobsters are on the rebound,” Theiler said. “Last year bottomed out. This year there’s a tremendous amount of resources. They’re catching lobsters up and down the sound, in places that haven’t ever seen lobsters.”

“The population is coming back,” Theiler said with confidence. Frate might see things a little differently.

“Our losses are running up there,” Frate said. “They’re running from the pesticides coming in from New York.” By Frate’s own account, each time there’s a pesticide spraying to control mosquitoes, followed by a heavy rain, the circulation pattern of the sound takes these chemicals from New York and into Greenwich, and over several weeks it spreads through most of the sound. These events typically end in dead lobsters and other crustaceans, Frate said.

Dave Simpson, director of the state’s marine fisheries division, said that the lobster are still safe to eat, but emphasized that more needs to be learned about how pesticides interact with lobster.

“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, although detection methods have improved since the late 1990s, giving scientists the ability to find the pesticides in lower concentrations. These pesticides break down relatively fast in water, so for researchers to find the chemicals in lobsters creates a number of questions that only a thorough study can address, Simpson said.

Division over course of action

While derision continues over what happened and what’s going on, lawmakers, stakeholders and fisherman are also at odds about how to help the lobster rebound.

Connecticut has implemented several measures to spur lobster growth, including the V-notch program, which provided $1 million in 2006 for lobstermen to tag mature female lobsters and return them to the sound.

The state also increased the minimum harvestable size of lobsters in 2009 by a quarter-inch, but in Maine, which harvests upwards of 40 million pounds annually, the minimum size is a quarter-inch smaller than in the Nutmeg State and New York.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a “deliberative body” comprised of three members from each state on the eastern seaboard that helps manage saltwater fisheries, advocated for an increase in the size of escape vents on lobster traps, which also happened in 2009.

Frate said because of these changes, he’s had to throw many lobsters back in the water. “There were too many shorts,” Frate said.

Toni Kerns, senior fisheries management plan coordinator for the fisheries commission, said that these steps were necessary and more action needs to be taken.

“The board is working on putting together measures that will begin to rebuild the southern New England stock,” Kerns said. “The board is dedicated to rebuilding the stock and working in conjunction with industry to do that.”

The commission urged Long Island Sound lobstermen to decrease the number of lobsters they take from the sound, called the exploitation, by 10%. So Theiler called for a seasonal closure in the spring of 2013, but the exact dates have yet to be established. Frate said he would have preferred a winter closure.

“There’s two separate bodies of water here,” Frate said. “Why not close [the eastern] side down, and let us close down in the winter?”

Thieler said he advocated a spring shutdown because that’s when prices for the year bottom out. “No. two, lobsters shed in the fall,” Thieler said, adding that these lobsters are generally poorer in quality. “We figured if we had to have a seasonal closure than we could do it just after Labor Day. We’d close up then open back up just before Christmas so we’d be able to take advantage of those two holidays.”

The fisheries commission suggested a five year moratorium on fishing, but lobstermen argued it would put them out of business. Some have advocated subsidies to pay lobstermen to not fish, although others claim there isn’t any money for such a solution.

Dr. Robert Bayer, director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, which tested the effects of pesticides after the 1999 die-off, said it might be time to consider offshore hatcheries to replenish the lobster.

“I don’t think the population is big enough to restock itself,” Bayer told The Times. “There were not enough survivors” after the die-off.

Simpson, from the state’s marine fisheries division, said hatcheries would not be pragmatic. “If the wild seed, so to speak, that’s best adapted to the local conditions can’t make it, I can’t imagine that hatchery-reared lobsters could fare better,” he said. “That and the sheer volume you’d have to put out there, would not make it feasible.”

“We need to work with Mother Nature and the stock that’s adapted to the condition in the sound,” Simpson added. “Leaving more lobster in the water is probably the smartest thing we can do to rebuild the stock and the fisheries that depend on it.”

But lobstermen such as Frate and Thieler say they’re already hurt by an increase in gauge size, larger escape vents on traps and the scare caused by pesticides, which caused the market to stall as people quit buying lobsters.

Simpson said if half the lobsters harvested over the last 15 years had been returned to the sound instead of sold, the population would be closer to stabilization. In 2000, scientists predicted it would take the sound five to seven years to recover from the die-off, if it ever recovered. Simpson said the lobster problem continues to fester primarily because of a lack of public will.

“It’s disappointing,” Simpson said. “You need someone out there advocating for the resource.”

Frate said lobstermen are the best chance the lobster have because without lobster, there are no lobstermen. “The bottom line is they don’t want the fishermen out there,” Frate said. “Isn’t that awful?”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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