By Dave Sigworth, publicist of The Maritime Aquarium
Not to end the week as Debbie Downer, but it’s a sad weekend – on a historic scale – for Long Island Sound.
For the first time ever, a seasonal ban starts Sunday on the harvesting of lobsters in the Sound. Not that there are really that many lobsters to harvest.
The ban, imposed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), starts Sunday and runs through Nov. 28. It affects both commercial and recreational trapping. The seasonal closure is being done to reduce the total lobster harvest by 10 percent, which will leave more lobsters in the Sound so that – it is hoped – they will do their thing and make more lobsters.
In other words, it’s an attempt to help rebuild the Sound’s lobster population, which has been going drastically downhill since 1999. Some 3.7 million lobsters were pulled out of the Sound in 1998. By 2010, the number had dropped by more than 90 percent; down to 350,982.
A lot of lobstermen are no longer lobstermen.
We rarely see lobsters any more during the Marine Life Study Cruises conducted aboard The Maritime Aquarium’s research vessel. This entire summer, when the cruises ran daily, we pulled up a total of 15 lobsters. Back in the late 1990s, we used to bring up 15 lobsters every cruise.
What happened to all the lobsters? Well, that’s a good question. The die-off occurred right around the time that municipalities started spraying for mosquito control in response to the West Nile virus. A direct connection hasn’t been confirmed, but the state did ban the use of pesticides for mosquito control in coastal areas this year.
Some of the blame also may go to game fish, like striped bass, that are doing very well in the Sound and prey on young lobsters. (So there’s a “good news-bad news” thing.)
There’s a third suspected cause and it may be the cause that’s most alarming: Long Island Sound is getting warmer. A report earlier this year explained how the Sound is hosting more species of warm-water fish – and in greater numbers – that it generally didn’t host before. And, at the same time, species that used to be common in the Sound, and that prefer colder water, are becoming rarer.
Because of its temperatures, Long Island Sound has been near the southern limit for where lobsters range close to shore. Just a little warming may have made the Sound now too warm for lobsters.
Supporting that suggestion: the lobster problem isn’t limited to Long Island Sound. According to a statement by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection, the ASMFC imposed the seasonal lobstering ban “in response to the low level of abundance and persistent low production of young lobsters seen over the past decade across the entire New England stock complex (southern Massachusetts to Virginia, including offshore waters).”
If what we’re seeing is a changing Long Island Sound environment, then we have more to worry about than a three-month ban on catching lobsters that aren’t even there.