Lobsters Should Fear Mother Nature More than Plastics

If you trust the headlines, you might think that the biggest challenge facing the lobster industry in New York and New England is pollution — particularly from plastics. But think again. Plastics may be an easy political target, but they are not most likely culprit.

Problems began in 1999, when Long Island suffered a massive lobster die-off. Lobstermen blamed 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.

Nonetheless, lobstermen sued the pesticide company involved, netting $12.5 million in a settlement in addition to receiving $3.65 million in federal disaster payments. They proved nothing, but gained a lot.

Now they are looking at plastics — particularly those plastics made with the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). One researcher says BPA may contribute to a disease that rots lobster shells, which his now plaguing lobsters in Long Island Sound.

BPA is a convenient target here since it has been in the news lately. Activists 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 and Congress is looking at the issue as well.

With BPA already in the headlines, Hans Laufer, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Connecticut, was sure to gain attention. He maintains that BPA, along with other chemicals, creates stresses that reduce lobster resistance to the disease.

Laufer recently presented this research at a symposium in Rhode Island organized by New England Lobster Initiative, but there is no public record or published paper. A representative for the group says it will eventually be published in the Journal of Shellfish Research.

Until then, all we know is what Laufer tells the press, and he’s been making some highly questionable assertions. On the university of Connecticut Web site he writes: “The U.S. produces about 1 million tons of BPA annually, 60 percent of which ends up in the ocean.”

The source of this estimate is unknown, but the real question is whether the levels are enough to have any effect. A 2009 analysis published in Environmental Science and Technology reports that BPA levels are extremely low — at parts per trillion — and impacts on aquatic life are also low. This is not surprising, since BPA breaks down rather quickly. And levels in seawater, where lobsters reside, are among the lowest.

Laufer also asserts that BPA 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 die every year from smoking.

Other questions abound, such as: If BPA is a problem, why hasn’t it been a problem in the past? Why isn’t a problem elsewhere?

Other researchers involved with the Initiative have pointed to more likely sources of the problem: The area’s warm waters make it a marginal area for lobster survival and make it difficult for them to fight natural parasites. “[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 Island’s Division of Marine Fisheries, recently 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 it can even affect growth and development.

Another problem may have more to do with perception than reality. New York lobstermen are using the 1990s as a baseline to measure acceptable yield. 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. Lobster take reached a pinnacle of nearly 9.5 million pounds in 1996, but the average yield between 1950 and 1989 totaled less than a million pounds.

The University of Rhode Island’s Kathleen Castro, who chairs the New England Lobster Research Initiative executive committee, explains in a press release: “In the 1970s we didn’t have many lobsters around, and in the 1980s and ’90s we had them coming out of everywhere. . . . Fishermen got used to the high numbers, and it may be that now they are just back down to more normal levels.”

Nonetheless, the pollution angle gets the headlines — even when though the research is not yet available. Apparently, too many people have too much to gain. Greens gain more opportunities to hype BPA risks, activist researchers garner more headlines, and the lobstermen may find another industry to sue for “damages.”