Pesticide use bugs lawmakers: Link to lobster die-off comes into focus


Written by Chipp Reid
Monday, February 09, 2009

A pair of Democratic lawmakers say they plan to grill the state Department of Environmental Protection over its efforts to restore the state’s lobster industry while ignoring industry experts on the effects of pesticides lobstermen say continue to kill the animals.

Commercial fishermen claim pesticides many communities used to combat mosquitoes caused the lobster die-off in 1999 that all but wiped-out the state’s $40 million lobster industry. The DEP, however, says there is not enough scientific data pointing specifically to the pesticides malathion or Altosid as the root cause of the die-off. Without that evidence, the DEP says, it cannot and will not ban the use of the chemicals.

“It’s time we stop looking at Long Island Sound like it’s just a recreational body of water and start looking at it like it’s a job site. We lost an entire industry on the Sound,” said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “If we had a massive die-off on a farm in northern Connecticut, you can bet the DEP would still be conducting tests and would ban everything to find out why. I don’t understand why it’s different with the Sound.”

Connecticut has spent $1 million trying to restore the lobster fishery and could spend another $200,000 on the program. State Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford and chairman of he House Environment Committee, said he finds the DEP stance puzzling.

“They’re trying to restore an industry, but they don’t listen to the industry about potential problems with pesticides. That’s odd,” Roy said. “It doesn’t make much sense to work to restore the lobster fishery if we’re allowing chemicals to keep killing the lobsters.”

Environmentalists agree

Fishermen and environmentalists agree with Roy. They say the restoration program little more than a waste of money if the DEP doesn’t ban malathion or Altosid.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend money on restoring a fishery if we’re just going to allow people to keep using the pesticides that killed the lobsters in the first place,” said Nick Crismale, president of the Connecticut Lobstermen’s Association.

“We know. We were there. We saw what can only be the effects of pesticide poisoning. If the DEP doesn’t do something about the pesticides, there’s no way we can restore the lobsters.”

The 1999 die-off came days after towns in Fairfield County, Westchester County and Long Island as well as New York City, sprayed malathion to kill mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus. At the same time, the remnants of Hurricane Floyd inundated the state. Fishermen say the storm washed the pesticides into Long Island Sound, resulting in the die-off. The DEP, however, says the storm caused many other factors that led to the mass die-off.

“You had a number of effects from the storm, from hypoxia [lack of oxygen] to extremely low salinity to a major increase in water temperature,” said Penny Howell, an environmental scientist with the fisheries division of the DEP. “Those had to have been bad things for the lobsters. There is simply no evidence pesticide could have covered the entire Sound to have the kind of effect that caused the die-off.”

The DEP uses a series of tests Stony Brook University in New York conducted in the wake of the die-off. Those tests concluded water conditions as well as a parasite killed the lobsters rather than a particular chemical. However, the School of Pathobiology and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Connecticut, in a test it conducted in 2003, found even minute traces of malathion can have lethal effects on lobsters. According to the UConn study, 0.55 parts per billion of malathion, equivalent to a teaspoon of chemical in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, either kills lobsters outright or severely degrades its immune system.

“If a lobster’s immune system is degraded, of course it’s susceptible to a parasite,” Crismale said.

Crismale also said attempts at the Lobster Institute of the University of Maine to infect healthy lobsters with the parasite the Stony Brook report cited failed.

“A healthy lobster killed the parasite,” he said “Lobsters affected by pesticides died. You be the judge.”

Roy said he believes there is more than enough circumstantial evidence for the DEP “to act on the side of caution.”

“We really don’t know what the killed the lobsters,” he said. “But we are trying to bring them back, and we are spending money. I think the only way to find out is to begin to eliminate possible causes. We can’t do much to change the water temperatures. We can do something about pesticide use. If we eliminate the pesticide, and the lobsters get better, then we know we’re onto something.”

The Commissioner’s Office

Roy said he would take up the issue with DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy.

The DEP itself appears divided over whether to enact even a limited ban on malathion and Altosid. Scientists in the fisheries division believe the pesticides pose a potential threat, but they also say there is not enough direct evidence linking the pesticides to the die-off.

Dennis Schain, a spokesman for McCarthy, took a much firmer tack.

“If there isn’t any science to support a ban, we won’t ban it,” he said. “Case closed.”

At least one lawmaker disapproved of that approach.

“We’ve banned other pesticides without hard scientific data, and I see no reason why this should be different,” said Duff. “We’re talking about jobs and the health of Long Island Sound. We should err on the side of caution, and if that means stopping the use of some chemicals, then we should stop.”

The debate over pesticides could rise to the federal level as well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells the states which pesticides it allows. Ray Putnam, a scientists in the pesticide division of the EPA office in Boston, said it was then up to the states to decide whether to shorten that list.

U.S. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman said he believes it’s time for Connecticut to adopt a shorter list.

“I will continue to fight the dumping of pesticides in Long Island Sound and will remain a staunch defender of the Sound’s shorelines and its marine life,” Lieberman said in a statement. “Long Island Sound is a precious natural resource, and it is essential that we remain good stewards by preserving the Sound’s environmental integrity.”

Roy said the state has already taken steps to ban pesticide use on playgrounds and at nursery and pre-schools.

“We want to protect children under 3 from exposure to harmful chemicals,” Roy said.

The Milford Democrat also said adding malathion to a banned list would bring the state one step closer to his eventual goal.

“I would like to see the state go completely organic in pesticide and fertilizer,” Roy said. “I really don’t see the issue when it comes to a certain pesticide of not using it if it’s a problem chemical.”

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