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Poisoned Lobsters

Karl Grossman
The Sag Harbor Express

If you’re going to eat a lobster on Long Island, it’s highly unlikely these days that it came from the waters of the Long Island Sound — long a huge source of lobsters. That’s because the lobster fishery in the Sound has been decimated.

In Connecticut, the die-off has been blamed on the spraying of toxic mosquito pesticides. Clinching the case was the finding last year of the pesticides methoprene and resmethrin in lobster tissue. Thus the state passed a measure, signed into law in June, banning the use of methoprene and resmethrin in coastal areas of Connecticut. An exception can be made if there are documented instances of mosquito-borne disease, notably West Nile Virus.

Now Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman of Montauk has introduced a bill to restrict the use of methoprene in the estuaries of Suffolk. An exception is provided if there are, as his bill states, “one or more disease threats, including, but not limited to West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis…positively identified in local mosquito populations” and “two or more bacterial larvicide treatments have been unsuccessful.”

Mr. Schneiderman, who before getting into government was a science teacher, says Suffolk “should be doing everything it can to limit the unnecessary introduction of toxins into our environment” and “there are alternatives to methoprene that have not been shown to be harmful to our crabs and lobsters.” Of resmethrin, “right now,” said the lawmaker from his office in Sag Harbor, he is not including it in legislation.

Methoprene is sold under the name Altosid and is a “larvicide” designed to upset the growth pattern of infant mosquitoes. Resmethrin, sold under several trade names including Scourge, is an “adulticide” that kills grown mosquitoes. The huge problem is that they also impact other life — including lobsters.

At a press conference in Connecticut held with the law’s passage there, State Senator Bob Duff said: “The fisheries of Long Island Sound have been devastated by this lobster die-off.”

Some 3.7 million pounds of lobster were caught in Connecticut waters in 1998 and 142,000 pounds in 2011, the date of the most recent tally. “We’ve seen a 98 percent decline in the lobsters we catch,” Roger Frate, owner of Darien Seafood said.

John Shaban, a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, 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, with the finding of methoprene and resmethrin in dead, dying and some live lobsters “we learned that the experts may have been wrong.”

Earlier, the state of Maine, Legislator Schneiderman noted in a statement last week, became “the only East Coast fishery where methoprene has been banned” and its “lobster population…is at acceptable, sustainable levels.” Indeed, if you are eating a lobster nowadays on Long Island, it likely came from Maine or Canada.

In 2007, four members of Suffolk’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) — established to be the environmental watchdog for county government — resigned after a large majority on the Suffolk Legislature approved a county mosquito control plan providing for heavy use of methoprene and resmethrin. The plan had been rejected by CEQ.

One of the four, Dr. John Potente, told the legislature then that “we did our research and homework” and found ‘damning evidence’ that the die-off of Long Island Sound lobsters was connected to methoprene and resmethrin.

Last week, Dr. Potente told me: “In the name of mosquito control, the Suffolk County Department of Public Works [DPW] has a history of aggressively spraying chemicals that it has known little about.” Mr. Schneiderman’s bill to restrict the use of methoprene “would put Suffolk County in the right direction in terms of being precautious about spraying chemicals that have too many associated hidden health hazards.”

Suffolk County has a long history of using pesticides in a big way. Suffolk had a role in the banning of DDT in the U.S. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring” was key. But another factor was a lawsuit challenging the spraying of DDT by the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission which preceded DPW in doing pesticide spraying here. The DDT spraying resulted in the egg shells of the area’s signature bird, the osprey, to become paper-thin and break when sat on in nests resulting in a sharp decline in the osprey population. Then and now, here as in Connecticut, we’ve been told by “experts” who push pesticides that they are safe