Taking Liberties: The Curious Case of the Dying Lobsters

“Look at that,” said Mike Kalaman as he held up a juvenile lobster that appeared limp in his fingers. “That is not normal.”

Kalaman was on his lobster boat, “Dark Horse,” on Tuesday, hauling traps and setting bait in the middle of Long Island Sound. It’s something he’s been doing for more than 30 years.

But lately, the Connecticut lobsterman says his pots have been empty, or filled with sick lobsters like the juvenile he tossed back.

“Yeah, I know what the problem is,” he said. “To me there’s no doubt.”

Kalaman points his finger south toward New York State.

“It’s methoprene,” he said. Everyone who works in this industry knows it’s methoprene.”

Methoprene is the pesticide of choice for New York counties that border Long Island Sound, including Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester. All three counties have been adding it to storm drains since 1999 with the blessing of New York State, to kill mosquitoes that may carry the West Nile Virus.

Kalaman says it’s no coincidence that 1999 is the year lobsters started disappearing in the Sound.

"Every summer,” he explained, “when we have our first heavy rainfall of the year, these chemicals leach into the Sound, and the lobsters get sick.”

He said storm runoff brings the pesticide from the drains directly to where the lobsters mate.

“It sinks to the bottom of the sound and travels like a fog bank, killing all the lobsters.”

Twelve years ago, there were more than a thousand people working in the Connecticut lobster industry. Today there are less than 80.

Kalaman and his fellow lobstermen are now asking New York to stop using methoprene.

“No other state uses it but New York,” explained Roger Frate, owner of Darien Seafood, who also blames methoprene for the decade-long lobster die-off. “It’s a complete disaster.”

Still, not everyone in the Empire State links the crustacean kills to methoprene.

“In my opinion, and the opinion of many other scientists involved in this effort,” said Dr. Anne McElroy, “there was no real link between pesticide levels and the mortality event that occurred.”

McElroy is a Toxicologist and Researcher at Stony Brook University's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. Over the past 7 years, her lab has examined the effects of pesticides on larvae and juvenile lobsters.

“It’s the environmental conditions in the Sound that have been contributing to these deaths,” she concluded, pointing to increased water temperatures.

“Environmental conditions in the Sound are marginal at best for lobsters,” she said, “and they've been getting progressively worse.”

Kalaman and other Connecticut lobstermen don’t want to hear it.

“They can do all the tests they want,” he said. “I see it happen.”

He makes the point that the lobsters start getting sick after it rains.

“Within a week of the first heavy rainfall,” he said, “it's like that,” as he snapped his fingers. “They just start dying.

“That is not normal,” he added. “They are killing our lobsters.”