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Crustaceous canary?

Published September 05. 2013 4:00AM

The state's lobstermen seem to be stoically and inexorably accepting the first-ever ban on lobster gathering in Long Island Sound. What is most distressing, however, is the prevailing lack of confidence that this sacrifice will do much of anything to restore the struggling fishery.

Starting Sunday and continuing through Nov. 28 there will be a prohibition on the capture of lobsters in the Sound. There are 120 people with active commercial lobster licenses in Connecticut, 225 with recreational licenses, but for 15 years lobster numbers have been declining.

The closure comes by way of a compromise. Its intent is to fulfill a mandate from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce the lobster harvest by 10 percent to help the stock in the area recover. While there is no good time for lobstermen to shut down their operations in the Sound, the organizations representing their interests said after Labor Day was preferable. Post-summer market prices drop and the catches tend to be smaller.

While this attempt to improve a terrible situation is worth the effort, it is hard to count on it working when the reason for the plunge in lobster populations remains a mystery. Pesticide contamination is among the leading theories. The Connecticut legislature this year passed a ban on the use of pesticides for mosquito control in coastal areas.

Also under study is whether rising water temperatures in the Sound are adversely affecting lobsters. There would be no easy fix for that. A third theory is that lobsters are suffering because other species are flourishing. Striped bass, scup and other predatory fish like to make a meal of young lobsters.

Further complicating matters is that the die-off could result from a combination of factors - pollution, warming temperatures and increased predation.

At the very least, the pause will allow studies of lobster populations to continue while removing fishing as a factor. It will also provide data as to how much a moratorium helps, if it does at all.

"Nobody is expecting a 10 percent reduction to turn around the stock," the director of marine fisheries for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, David Simpson, told The Day. More ominously he added that the shutdown is a "last-ditch effort."

Let's hope not. Lobsters are part of the heritage of the Sound. The thought that they might disappear is alarming, the crustaceous version of the canary in the coal mine, perhaps.

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