A financial windfall has given scientists studying a massive lobster die-off in Long Island Sound a head start collecting data--and a better shot at determining the culprit. The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) discovered several weeks ago that the state had collected $200,000 last February as part of a pollution settlement. The extra cash will allow lobster researchers to start work immediately instead of waiting until federal and other state funding becomes available.
Lobster die-offs happen every fall, says Ernie Beckwith, director of fisheries at the Connecticut DEP, but "extraordinary" mortalities in the fall of '98 and '99 decimated the lobster industry in the western half of the sound. In response, Congress last month approved $13.9 million for research and economic aid, and Connecticut plans to chip in another $1 million, but the funds won't be paid out until October at the earliest.
Although many lobstermen and environmentalists linked the die-offs to increased spraying of pesticides, particularly for mosquitoes and mosquito larvae, University of Connecticut veterinarian Richard French believes the cause "may be multifactorial." Last year, he notes, the sound had record high water temperatures for a record period of time. Nevertheless, he and his team plan to first collect data on the levels of water contaminants--including malathion, a pesticide widely used to kill mosquitoes--to attempt to measure their effect on lobster health. French hopes to be out on the sound as early as next week. "If we don't start collecting data now," he says, "it'll be more difficult to pin down a cause."