September 28, 2021

Lobster Institute gets part of settlement

ORONO – The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine will receive $100,000 as part of a multimillion-dollar settlement over a pesticide application that has been blamed for the lobster die-off in Long Island Sound.

A group of lobstermen who fished the waters between Long Island and Connecticut announced Tuesday they had reached a $12.5 million settlement in a lawsuit they filed in 2000. The fishermen claimed a pesticide used in 1999 to prevent an outbreak of mosquito-borne West Nile virus may have contributed to a devastating die-off of the popular crustaceans in the sound.

Dr. Bob Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute, said Wednesday the plaintiffs wanted the institute to have some of the money because it was the first outside entity to look into their complaints. The institute sent investigators to Long Island Sound two weeks after the pesticide was applied and lobsters started dying off, he said.

Bayer said the institute was pleased to receive some of the funds, which it may put toward a graduate fellowship program at the university.

“We were hoping for a bigger settlement and a bigger piece,” he said.

According to Gladstone Jones, a New Orleans-based attorney who represented the fishermen in the lawsuit, the deal with New Jersey chemical company Cheminova is in addition to the $3.75 million that was paid in 2004 agreements with Clarke Mosquito Control Products Inc. and Agrevo Environmental Health. The money would be divided among several hundred commercial lobstermen.

The die-off rattled the industry, sending 75 percent of full-time lobstermen in Long Island Sound out of the trade. Lobster catches in the Sound have dropped to less than 1 million pounds a year, compared with 6 million pounds in the late 1990s.

“This settlement is a victory for the hundreds of lobster fishermen in New York and Connecticut who lost their vocation and way of life with the destruction of the 200-year-old Long Island Sound lobster fishery,” Jones said in a statement issued late Tuesday. Tuesday’s announcement ends the final pending case in the dispute.

Lawsuits filed in 2000 in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, N.Y., targeted the manufacturers of chemicals that were sprayed in and around the New York metropolitan area to combat the perceived threat of the West Nile virus outbreak. West Nile virus was virtually unknown in the United States until New York City was stricken in a summer outbreak in 1999, when 62 people were infected and seven died.

The lobstermen claimed Cheminova allowed Fyfanon, a brand name for malathion, to be used with an outdated label on its 55-gallon drums. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in 1994 the label needed a warning that the spray should not be used “around bodies of water where fish or shellfish are grown and/or harvested commercially,” according to the lawsuit.

But the EPA delayed final approval of the label change a number of times between 1994 and 1999. The labels that included the warning did not appear until a few weeks after lobsters began to die, the suit contended.

Cheminova, located in Wayne, N.J., argued the EPA never gave it a “specific, immediate starting date for use of the new label,” according to papers filed by the company’s Manhattan attorney. In the settlement, the company admitted no wrongdoing. Neither attorney Christopher Kelly nor a spokesman for the company in New Jersey immediately returned telephone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

A debate has raged in the years since the die-off over the role the pesticide spraying played. Researchers in 2004 reported that pesticides were not a major factor and instead said the deaths were caused by several factors, including warmer-than-usual water, low oxygen levels, unhealthy levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide and infectious diseases. Lobsters can become more vulnerable to parasites and bacteria if average water temperature increases just 1 degree and oxygen levels drop, researchers said, and phosphates and nitrogen from run-off in populated areas can reduce oxygen.

Other events, such as the effects of hurricanes Floyd and Dennis, also could have contributed to the die-off.

Bayer, however, said he has seen research that shows the effects of pesticide poisoning on lobsters. Crustaceans in Long Island Sound exhibited the same kind of “twitchy” behavior after the pesticide was applied, he said.

“It’s essentially like a big bug,” Bayer said of the crustaceans. “Anything that kills an insect will kill a lobster.”

He acknowledged that fishermen did not have a “smoking gun” to identify the cause of the die-off because, by the time water samples in the sound were taken, the pesticide had broken down beyond the point of being detectable.

“Unless you’re right there when it happens, you’re not going to find it,” he said.

There is a simple lesson to be taken from Long Island Sound for anyone thinking about applying pesticide in Maine, where an estimated $290 million worth of lobster was caught in 2005, according to Bayer.

“Be careful,” he said.

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