The Lost Lobsters of Long Island Sound

By Rachel Berman, Kyle Booth, Hannah Yi, Justin Brown, and Wenyi Zou

The commercial fishing industries of New York and Connecticut rely on the generous marine ecosystem of the Long Island Sound. “To me, summertime and lobsters go together,” wrote Robert Sussler in his New York Times article. “There’s nothing better than enjoying a nice lobster meal on a summer evening in New England — especially when you’ve caught the lobster yourself.” Sussler isn’t a lobsterman himself, but that doesn’t restrict anyone from enjoying the long-time traditions of Long Island Sound. Beyond providing oysters, lobsters, crabs and a variety of fish, the Sound is a cornerstone of coastal culture, a backbone of a healthy regional economy and a source of tradition to the 23 million people that live within reach of the Sound. However, lobsters have been disappearing from the Sound in recent years, and the fishery catch has dropped from 3.7 million pounds in 1998 to only 142,000 in 2011. At the same time, the lobsters off the coast have shifted north by more than 150 miles. Whereas they were centered off New Jersey in the late 1960s, they are now centered off Massachusetts.
Many have blamed the warming temperatures in the region, which have risen three degrees Fahrenheit over the last decade alone. According to Michael Fogarty, the Director of the Ecosystem Assessment Program of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, “In Long Island, the water temperature has hit the danger zone for lobster and that is why you see them moving north.” Warmer water in the Sound leaves the lobsters susceptible to bacterial and parasitic infections and may cause their food sources to decline. Other stressors, such as pesticides running off the land and into the Sound, may also play a role. Whatever the cause, the future is not looking bright. Fogarty continues, “The lobster industry in the Long Island Sound may be a lost cause. Higher temperatures are usually good for a catch, but the temperature has hit its peak and now it has gone too far.”
Many are now wondering what lobster fishermen will do in the future. Options include following the lobsters, leaving the industry, or perhaps focusing on a new species moving in from the south. Blue crab, for example, has traditionally been abundant further south, in the Chesapeake Bay, but may start to thrive in a warmer Long Island Sound. Relative to the vast number of people who rely on the lobster fishery, Fogarty speaks hopefully for the future, “It’s challenging because fishermen who have been fishing a species their whole life will have to learn the behaviors of a totally different animal, but these guys are professionals, they can do it.” Dr. Vince Saba, Research Biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, warns that the blue crab will need to be fished smartly. Blue crab fishing differs from that of the lobster and timing is even more uncertain as the invading species continues to acclimate to the new environment.
It’s not just scientists who have noticed the collapse of the lobster fishery. After a thorough assessment, the U.S. Congress disbursed funds through NOAA Fisheries for disaster compensation. The programs include a variety of efforts aimed at rebuilding the lobster population and adapting to the inevitable changes. For example, programs through the Connecticut Department of Environmental and Community Development (CT DECD) and the New York State Empire State Development (NYS ESD) department aimed to compensate individuals, provide direct aide, and assist the communities affected by the disaster. Grants provided new job training for lobstermen who were interested in pursuing other opportunities and ran a permit buy-back program that was used to reduce the fishing effort by 25% in New York State. New York and Connecticut have also reduced the fall season by eleven weeks in an effort to further reduce fishing exploitation. Other citizens are also working to restore and protect the Long Island Sound with native resources and invertebrate life that will help clean the water. While the lobsters may move north, many citizens are counting the fact that the Long Island Sound ecosystem will still have much to offer, even in a warmer future.
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