DARIEN, Conn. -- Fairfield County's lobster industry has been decimated in the past 15 years, but a new bill signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy last Friday is giving the few remaining lobster fishermen hope of reviving the population of the marine crustacean in Long Island Sound.
Several of the state's estimated 15 to 20 remaining lobstermen gathered at Darien Seafood Market on Monday afternoon with state legislators, including state Sens. Bob Duff (D-Norwalk, Darien) and Carlo Leone (D-Stamford, Darien) as well as state Rep. John Shaban (R-Redding-Weston-Easton), to kick off what they hope is the start of a rebirth of lobster-fishing by banning use of two pesticides near the coast of Connecticut.
After years of speculation, there is now enough empirical evidence to suggest that the pesticides methropene and resmethrin, aimed at killing mosquitoes, killed off huge numbers of lobsters after it regularly washed into the Sound through sewer drains.
“The fisheries of Long Island Sound have been devastated by this lobster die-off, which has been terrible for our local economy and all the families that relied on this industry,” Duff said in a statement. "We should be doing everything we can to reverse the trend and bring the lobster population back to a healthy level. I am confident that spraying fewer pesticides in coastal areas will help accomplish that."
Methropene and resmethrin were created to kill mosquitoes that may carry West Nile virus. But in a genetic coincidence, lobsters carry a gene similar to mosquitoes that leaves them susceptible to pesticides.
"We finally have an agreement with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection about using those chemicals in coastal areas," Duff said. "We can't say that's the only reason why, but we do know now that's a big reason why the lobsters have disappeared."
When Connecticut legislators learned that lobsters had returned to the coast of Rhode Island after that state banned those two chemicals, it helped the bill become a reality, Duff said.
"For several years we have listened to the experts who told us that these pesticides could not harm the lobster population – last year, however, we learned that the experts may have been wrong,” said Shaban, Ranking Member of the Environment Committee. "This measure will give the benefit of the doubt to the people who have been working these waters for their entire lives, and will help restore a lucrative local industry.”
The lobster population is at an all-time low off the coast of Connecticut. About 3.7 million pounds of lobster was caught in the Sound within state borders in 1998. That number declined to just 142,000 pounds in 2011, the date of the most recent study.
In addition, 1,200 lobstermen were fishing the state's waters as recently as the mid-1990s.
"We've seen a 98 percent decline in the lobsters we catch," Darien Seafood owner Roger Frate said. "Just two weeks ago, we paid $7.50 a pound when we used to sell them for $2.99 a pound."
Although the bill passed easily in Connecticut with bipartisan support, eliminating the use of methropene and resmethrin will require interstate cooperation. The New York state legislature has no plans to ban the pesticides, which are also washed into the Sound from Long Island.
If New York were to ban the same chemicals today, the Sound's lobster industry would return to the levels of the 1990s within three years, Frate estimated.
"I think we will soon look back on the last 10 years as an unfortunate time in which we inadvertently allowed one of our oldest industries to be almost destroyed," Leone said in a statement. "I hope that by reversing course, we can allow the lobster population to recover and bring back some of the jobs that were lost. I hope our neighbors in New York will soon follow suit."
Duff, Shaban and Leone were joined Monday by fishermen Tony Carlo and Mike Kalaman, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, Rep. Jonathan Steinberg of Westport, Rep. Terry Backer of Stratford, Sen. Clark Chapin of New Milford and Lance Stewart of the University of Connecticut.