The mysterious case of Long Island Sound’s disappearing lobsters

    Fisherman of the Long Island Sound have become accustomed to pulling up empty lobster pots. (Nathaniel Butler/for WHYY)

    Fisherman of the Long Island Sound have become accustomed to pulling up empty lobster pots. (Nathaniel Butler/for WHYY)

    As the waters off of Long Island Sound warm, the lobsters are going elsewhere, and the men who made their living fishing them out of the sea are forced to change their way of life. 

    The lobstermen of Long Island Sound are struggling. They once pulled a couple million pounds of lobster out of the Sound every year, but now, they’re lucky if they get 10 percent of that. More than 90 percent of the Sound’s lobster population has disappeared.

    Lobstermen, fishery managers and scientists are scrambling to discover the source of the die-off and to figure out what can be done to aid the lobsters’ recovery.

    A disappearing way of life

    “This is a very typical down-east style lobster boat,” Eddy Emory says as he steers his boat — named the Dylan Jacob, after his son — into the Stonington Fisherman’s Dock in southeast Connecticut. “If you’re looking for a lobster boat with the most efficient speed, stability, you look for a down-east boat. The guys in Maine have been building them for hundreds and hundreds of years.”

    Emory is a third-generation lobsterman who works alongside his father and brother. A couple of days ago, they took their lobster pots — four-by-three-foot wire cages — and baited them with dead fish, tied them together in long lines of seven, and then placed them on the floor of the Sound with the hope that a lobster would crawl in.

    “Probably the most important piece of equipment on a lobster boat is a depth finder. Lobsters like variations in depth: rock piles, wrecks,” Emory says.

    Today, Emory pulled his last couple lobster pots out of the water. That’s because, starting two years ago, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has been shutting down lobstering for the winter to try to give the species a chance to recover. Because of the shutdown, Emory has had to get a winter job delivering home heating oil.

    “Shutdown, who cares? What shutdown?” Emory scoffs. “We’re already shut down. Mother Nature shut us down. The lobsters are gone. The water has warmed. They’re heading off to colder water.”

    There used to be hundreds of lobstermen working on Long Island Sound. Now, there are fewer than 100.

    “My best week in life, I was surrounded. I was just shy of 14,000 pounds for a week. But I’ll never see a day like that. I can’t imagine,” says Mike Grimshaw, the president of the Southern New England Fishermen’s and Lobstermen’s Association, and perhaps the last remaining fisherman south of Cape Cod who ekes out a living solely from lobsters.

    “The illusion of saying, ‘I’m a full-time lobsterman’ is gone,” he says.

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    Eddy Emory’s boat on the right is tied to his father’s boat, left, at Stonington Fisherman’s Dock. (Nathaniel Butler/for WHYY)

    The mysterious die-off

    In the late 1990s, there were more lobsters than ever before in the Long Island Sound. Then, suddenly, they all disappeared, mysteriously killed by an unknown force. Some say pollution killed them. Others, climate and predators.

    Antoinette Clemetson, the fisheries specialist at the New York Sea Grant, says chemicals from plastics could have played a role.

    “Chemicals that are known as Alkyphenols, which are found in plastics, do have an effect on the juvenile hormones that control, you know, basic biological functions such as growth and molting and development,” she explains.

    Another factor is climate. Since the late 1990s, the temperature of Long Island Sound has been creeping steadily upward, says Dave Simpson, a biologist and the director of marine fisheries at Connecticut’s Department of Environmental Protection. And lobsters are a cold-water species.

    “There’s a reason you don’t find lobsters in inshore waters of New Jersey and Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina,” Simpson says. “They can’t live there. It’s too warm. And what we’re finding is we’re getting very, very close to that in Long Island Sound.”

    In Maine, where the water is colder, lobsters are thriving. But, in southern New England, they’re suffering. When the water reaches 68 degrees Fahrenheit, lobsters become weak and limp and susceptible to disease and predation. Back in the 1980s and 90s, the average water temperature of Long Island Sound was that hot only about 40 days a year. Since 2000, though, the average temperature has hit 68 degrees about 70 days a year, nearly twice as often. These warming waters bring with them another challenge: favorable conditions for the fish that love to feed on lobsters — especially when they’re sitting in a lobster trap.

    “I remember being a little kid. You see a fish come up in a trap — it was a big deal: ‘Oh my god, what kind of fish is that, Dad?'” says Emory, the lobsterman. “Now, the traps are absolutely overrun with fish.”

    Saving the lobsters

    The government is trying new management tricks to try to protect the lobsters. In addition to shutting down lobstering in the winter, fishery managers have reduced the number of pots lobstermen are allowed to put in the water. And they’ve tried out a program to pay lobstermen to mark females and throw them back. Dave Simpson, with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, says the main challenge is figuring out how much lobstering to allow.

    “What should our expectations be?” he asks. “Certainly, it’s not getting back to one million pounds, three million pounds of landings for Connecticut a year. But is the population able to support a 200,000 pound fishery or a 50,000 pound fishery or is that even too much? Whether there’ll be anything left is uncertain.”

    “We need to do a better job protecting this resource, definitely,” Emory agrees. “We’re dropping the ball. Connecticut’s dropped the ball for 15 years.”

    Emory says the government should take more steps to reduce pollution in the Sound and should allow fishermen to catch more of the sea bass and scup that are preying on lobsters. Then, he says, the lobsters would have a fighting chance of survival.

    “My nephew was born on the 18th,” Emory says. “I’d like to think that someday he’ll be down here hauling lobster gear and making a living doing it. I want this dock here to be here forever.”

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