Dead in the Pots

A chain swings in the salty breeze blocking the waterfront in front of Fair Haven Clam & Lobster, and three “No Trespassing—Keep Out” signs hang in prominent places. The barrel of a revolver points out of yet another sign, which leans in the upper window of the house. “Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner,” it says.

The owner, Michael Fraenza, is a beefy, tattooed lobsterman. For the last fifty years, he has motored out from this dock six or seven mornings a week to fish in the Long Island Sound. Like his Fair Haven property, he exhibits attributes that are true to the Northeastern lobstering culture: a plainspoken unsociability and a close connection to the sea.

That culture could be on the brink of extinction in parts of Connecticut. Since the late 1990s, when lobsters in the Western Long Island Sound mysteriously began to die rapidly in large quantities, the crustaceans have been scarce in the Western Sound’s mucky bottom. Scientists cannot resolve why, and different theories pit the lobstermen and the state against each other. This summer Connecticut lobstermen organized a press conference at the Guilford Lobster Pound to protest a moratorium proposed by the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, but their efforts may have been more symbolic than practical.

“None of ‘em left,” Fraenza said when I asked him about New Haven lobstermen. Fraenza himself no longer catches lobsters, though he still identifies as a lobsterman—the die-off forced him to switch to conches and clams.

We usually attribute the death of subcultures to Westernization or nationalist regimes, but the decline of the Connecticut lobsterman is harder to source. The lobstermen’s troubles began with the die-off—but what caused the die-off in the first place? Politicians, scientists, lobstermen, and economists have been arguing about the answer to that question since 1999, when lobstermen first reported the loss of lobsters in their waters.

Like many of his colleagues, Fraenza believes that while the government blames the lobstermen for the die-off, the real culprit is the state’s spraying of insecticides to prevent West Nile Virus. “They sprayed again just last week,” he said. “I know a guy who’s fishing down in Greenwich, and he’s pulling ‘em up dead in the pots.”

The lobstermen’s hypothesis isn’t that far-fetched. West Nile Virus first appeared in North America in 1999, beginning with a smattering of dead crows in the streets around the Bronx Zoo. Then the zoo’s birds started keeling over as well. Human New Yorkers came next. Mosquitoes were transmitting West Nile Virus, it turned out, from birds to humans.

The idea of a mosquito-transmitted epidemic in New York City was terrifying. The government began to use insecticides widely: Planes sprayed the toxins over Connecticut and Long Island while crews doused the streets of Manhattan and the woods of Central Park.

Lobstermen say that these chemicals seeped into the water of the Western Sound and poisoned the lobsters, causing the massive die-off of the late 1990s. And because there continue to be outbreaks of West Nile, municipalities continue to spray these substances. If only the government would stop, the lobstermen believe, the lobster populations would bounce back.

Scientists are not so sure. A week after I spoke to Fraenza outside Fair Haven Lobster & Clam, I met with Carmela Cuomo, a marine ecologist at University of New Haven. Cuomo researched the lobster die-off, and she feels that understanding what happened then can help us piece together what is going on now at the bottom of the Sound.

Cuomo describes her worldview as “Native American-Zen-Buddhist-Catholic” and she professes an awe of the intricate machinery of the world. She talked to me about people-watching in airports and about the ants on the moonflowers in her garden, about six-foot-tall worms in underwater valleys and about the way “we are slowly but ever so surely moving away from Europe even as we sit” across from each other in a café. Even when she talked about the lobster die-off, which she considers tragic, her excitement was palpable.

“It was a puzzle, it was like CSI Lobster,” she said, describing the meeting in April of 1999 where the lobstermen of the Western Sound told scientists what they had seen. The lobsters “weren’t their normal lobster selves. You know, growly. They were just bluh,” said Cuomo, sticking out her tongue and letting her hands go limp. “And then they’d die.” And this was only happening in the Western basin of the Long Island Sound: the lobsters in the Central and Eastern basins were fine.

With these clues, Cuomo and the other scientists tried to track down what was killing the lobsters. At the lobstermen’s suggestion, they first tested the pesticide hypothesis. This explanation was compelling: more pesticides were sprayed around the Western Sound, because of the proximity to New York City, and one of the insecticides used to combat West Nile could plausibly have caused some of the symptoms exhibited by the lobsters. The insecticide killed mosquito larvae by turning them into adults before they were ready—imagine a human fetus born only three months into pregnancy—and the lobstermen were pulling up lobsters that had shed their shells long before their new shells were ready to harden.

To test whether these insecticides were killing the lobsters, the scientists created a computerized model of the Long Island Sound, incorporating the interactions of currents, water quality, and weather patterns. When they inputted the insecticides, though, they found that a relatively insignificant amount of these chemicals reached the bottom where the lobsters live. The models determined that there would not have been enough insecticides in the bottom water to kill lobsters even if there had been five or ten times the levels observed.

Lobster pots at Lobster Haven's dock on the Mill River.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Connecticut were dissecting lobsters that had been caught in the throes of death. Not all of the lobsters they dissected showed traces of insecticides, which confirmed the results of the computer model studies: if all of these lobsters were dying with the same symptoms, and only some of them had traces of pesticides in their bodies, the scientists concluded that insecticides were not the main cause of the epidemic.

What all the lobsters did have in common was a parasite of the nervous system called Neoparamoeba pemiquidensis. This looked like a prime suspect, Cuomo said. “The problem was, lobsters from Branford, which is in the Central Sound, were found to have this paramoeba in them, but they weren’t exhibiting any symptoms whatsoever.” There wasn’t enough genetic difference between the Western and Central lobsters to explain why the paramoeba would kill the Western population and not the Central one. “Thus the mystery deepened,” she said.

Cuomo tried to imagine what made the Western Sound different from the Central Sound, working with basic facts. Of the Sound’s three basins, the Western Sound is the muddiest and the most crowded with lobster traps. When she found out that 1999 had been the warmest year on record, she hit on a diagnosis: certain bacteria in the mud were making the water both toxic and hypoxic.

Hypoxic conditions occur when the amount of oxygen being introduced is less than the oxygen that is being used: it means that there isn’t quite enough oxygen to go around. In the late 1990s, the water of the Western Long Island Sound appeared to have many elements that could cause hypoxia.

One of these elements is excess organic matter. When plants and animals die in coastal waters like the Sound, their remains sink through the water and come to rest on the bottom where they may sink deeply into the mud. Usually, most animal corpses are broken down by oxygen-breathing bacteria. Sometimes, however, they are buried in mud beyond the level where oxygen can penetrate. The remains are then feasted on by bacteria that use nitrate and sulfate instead of oxygen. In doing so, these bacteria produce ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which eliminate oxygen as they move up from the mud into the water. Ammonia can also be toxic to lobsters, making them lethargic.

The more dead stuff floating around, the likelier hypoxia is. And there was certainly enough dead stuff. For years, erosion in coastal areas had allowed organic matter to collect in the Sound. And then there was the mackerel and other fish used as lobster bait. “The lobstermen told me they put down a minimum of three pounds of bait per pot per week,” Cuomo said. “There were legally one hundred thousand pots in Western Sound. As we all know, there were a lot more than the licensed pots, but if we only go with licensed pots, you’re talking about adding 300, 000 pounds of organic matter to the Western Sound a week.”

That means that bacteria were eating up an awful lot of oxygen while breaking down all of that dead matter. As if this wasn’t bad enough on its own, the bacteria were working faster due to the warmed water. On top of it all, the warmer water can hold less oxygen than cold water can.
Even without hypoxia, lobsters don’t like warm water. The combination of the two was creating some pretty stressed out lobsters. Cuomo called it “the perfect warm.”

Imagine being trapped with numerous other people in a stifling hot room without much air. Now imagine that there is an infection going around, and that the walls are made of asbestos. This is roughly the situation in which Western Long Island Sound lobsters found themselves at the end of the 1990s. Officially, the paramoeba was finishing them off, but it didn’t have to work very hard. “If you had sneezed on these lobsters, they would have died,” Cuomo said. “They were under so much stress.”

In 2003, Carmela Cuomo was selected by her colleagues to deliver this complex verdict at a press conference in Bridgeport. “It was both an honor, and kind of like being thrown to the wolves,” she said. The lobstermen didn’t like the findings she presented.

“The lobstermen were hoping it was the pesticides, because if it could be proven that it was the pesticides, they could turn around and sue the municipality, and sue the makers of the pesticides,” Cuomo said. “That’s fixable.” The lobstermen could have lived off the lawsuit money until the lobsters came back. But the lobster population never really came back. “This killed their livelihood.”

When she stood in front of the podium at Stony Brook, presenting the discoveries she and her colleagues had made about the die-off, Cuomo became the face of the scientific establishment. “I was personally vilified by Billy Joel,” she said. “He was out defending the lobstermen.”
Cuomo is sympathetic to the plight of the lobstermen. Her cousin is a lobsterman, and she supports the lobster-catching culture. “I am not anti-lobsterman,” she said again and again.

Yet lobstermen like Michael Fraenza still blame the government for the die-off, and hold a grudge against the scientists who determined that insecticides were not the primary cause. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection continues to conduct research on the insecticides, as yet without conclusions. “They’re really killing us,” Fraenza told me. “I’ve been in the business for fifty years, and I’m just barely hanging on.”

In order to make ends meet, Fraenza traded his wire-mesh lobster pots for metal dredges that sweep up conches and clams. Shellfish get pushed into the bars at the back of the dredge by a jet of water. It is hard not to see the lobstermen’s fate in the work of the dredge. The lobstermen too have been pushed into a corner by an unfortunate confluence of circumstances.

Fraenza still goes out at six every morning aboard the Rock’n’Roll, while the fishermen he has hired man his other two boats. New hires still lean overboard, puking their guts out for the first week. Fraenza keeps his eye on the horizon, checking for the next day’s weather. And families still brave the forbidding exterior of Fair Haven Clam & Lobster to buy fresh seafood. But it isn’t the same. The lobsters crawling around in the green, algae-covered basins now come from Maine and eastern Canada.

“I hear stories of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of lobsters coming in,” said Evette Gilbert, who sells the seafood for Fraenza from the basement room of Fair Haven Clam & Lobster. “They say people were lined up down the street to buy lobsters. Back then Michael was doing better.”

A family comes into the room, which is cooled by seawater cycling through the lobster tanks, and they pick out three crustaceans, one for each of them. They know that in a few hours, these antennae will stop twiddling and these tails will stop flicking. What they don’t know is how many tails and claws and antennae probed the mud a few nautical miles away just twenty years ago. They don’t know that these mud-dwellers gave rise to a unique lifestyle in and around New Haven; nor do they know just how rare that lifestyle has become.

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