Hype About Lobsters and BPA: Here We Go Again!

A series of articles and blogposts now warn that the chemical Bisphenol A–used to make hard clear plastics–is wreaking havoc on lobsters in the Long Island Sound. Here are a few such hyped headlines: “Bisphenol A: Bad for you, bad for lobsters,” “Lobsters and Us,” “Plastics, chemicals may weaken lobster’s health,” “Lobster dieoffs linked to plastic pollution, including bisphenol A.”

Problems began in 1999 when Long Island suffered a massive lobster die-off. Lobstermen blamed the pesticide spraying used to control the spread of the deadly mosquito-borne West Nile Virus. But the spraying occurred after the die-off began–it could not have caused it.

Researchers pointed more likely causes: overly warm water and parasites. Nonetheless, lobstermen sued the pesticide company involved and netted $12.5 million in a settlement in addition to receiving $3.65 million in federal disaster payments. They proved nothing, but gained quite a bit.

Now they are looking at plastics—particularly those plastics made with the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). They cite the research of one scientist who says pollution might be contributing to a disease that rots lobster shells, which his now plaguing lobsters in Long Island and Southern New England.

BPA is a convenient target since it’s been in the news quite a bit. Environmentalists say BPA-based products are dangerous to humans, despite the fact that dozens of research panels around the world have ruled them safe. States are passing bans on some BPA-based plastics and Congress is looking at the issue as well.

With BPA already in the headlines, Hans Laufer–professor Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Connecticut—was sure to gain attention with his claims that BPA pollution might also be affecting lobster health. He maintains that BPA, along with other chemicals, creates stresses that reduce lobster resistance to the disease.

One of 15 researchers with the New England Lobster Initiative, Laufer recently presented this research at a symposium in Rhode Island. Unfortunately, there is no public record of this meeting and Laufer’s research is not yet available. According to a representative with the initiative it will go though peer review and be published in the Journal of Shellfish Research. Until then, all we know right now is what Laufer has told the press.

While it is important to investigate all possible factors, Laufer has been playing up his “findings” with some highly questionable claims. On the University of Connecticut website he claims: “The U.S. produces about 1 million tons of BPA produced annually, 60 percent of it ends up in the ocean.” Yet he offers no evidence or source for this very provocative claim.

Perhaps a more important question is whether the levels are high enough to have any effect. A 2009 analysis published in Environmental Science and Technology reported that BPA levels are extremely low—at parts per trillion–and impact on aquatic life is also low. This is not surprising, since BPA breaks down rather quickly. There was one exception: higher levels were found in fresh water sediments in areas impacted by several waste water treatment plants depositing into the waters–a situation that does not apply here.

It may be that Laufer simply just doesn’t like plastics or BPA, which he says is “as big a threat to human health as tobacco.” Never mind that there are no documented cases of anyone dying from trace exposures to BPA, but thousands of people every year from smoking.

Other researchers involved with this initiative have produced solid research that on focuses on more likely sources of the problem, mostly pointing to Mother Nature herself.

Researchers have shown that lobsters in New York and New England suffer in large measure because relatively warm waters make it a marginal area for their survival. “[The lobster decline] is a combination of factors that are all related back to changes in water temperature,” Robert Glenn– a marine biologist with Rhode Islands’ Division of Marine Fisheries–told the Cape Cod Times.

Warm water has some of same effects that Laufer says chemicals do. It stresses the lobsters; makes them more susceptible to disease; and can even impact growth and development. Not surprisingly, lobsters are migrating away from the warmest areas and are doing much better in the cooler waters, such as in waters near Maine.

Another problem may have more to do with perception than reality. New York lobstermen are using the 1990s as a baseline to measure the yield they want to take from the waters. Yet during that decade, lobstermen pulled far more of the critters out of the water than ever before—probably more than could ever be sustainable.

In New York, lobster take peaked in 1971 then dipped in the late 1970s into the 1980s, only to balloon in the 1990s, up to a record of more than three million pounds in 1992 and then to its pinnacle of nearly 9.5 million pounds in 1996.

Before the 1990s, such high figures must have been unimaginable to New Yorkers. The average yield for all the years between 1950 and 1989 totaled less than a million pounds. In fact, 1999 ended a decade that was largely an aberration for New York. Interestingly, the take for 1999 (just over 7 million) and 2000 (nearly three million) is still higher than any year before 1990.

The University of Rhode Island’s Kathleen Castro, who chairs the New England Lobster Research Initiative executive committee, highlighted such factors in a press release related to Initiative research. She explains:

“In the 1970s we didn’t have many lobsters around, and in the 80s and 90s we had them coming out of everywhere. We don’t know why there used to be so many of them, and now we don’t know why there’s so many less. Fishermen got used to the high numbers, and it may be that now they are just back down to more normal levels. It may be related to water temperature, predator abundance, or shifts in the ecosystem.”

It is likely that the pollution angle will continue to be a media focus. After all, too many people have too much to gain. The greens gain more hype to push a BPA bans, activist researchers garner more headlines, and the lobstermen amass more targets to sue for “damages.”

Image credit: tuppus’ photostream on flickr.