Last month, Maine legislator Walter Kumiega introduced a bill that would ban the use of two pesticides, methoprene and resmethrin, in any body of water or area in the state that drains into the Gulf of Maine. We’re all familiar with some of the negative consequences of certain pesticides – from DDT’s effect on birds described in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to the more recent concerns about some chemicals’ role in crashing honeybee populations. But Kumiega’s bill is unusual in that it seeks to protect a marine species, not a terrestrial one – lobsters.
Lobsters are by far Maine’s most valuable fishery. In 2012, the state landed 126.6 million pounds of lobster with a value of more than $340 million, and around 80% of the state’s fishing revenues currently come from these tasty crustaceans. This heavy reliance on one species means that Maine’s fisheries are very vulnerable to any natural or human change that might harm the lobster population.
A crash in the currently abundant lobster population is a very real possibility, as fishermen in Long Island Sound know well. Connecticut and New York once had booming lobster fisheries. In 1998, for example, Connecticut landed over 3.7 million pounds of lobster, while New York landed nearly 7.9 million pounds. But that fishery collapsed rapidly over the past 15 years. In 2012, Connecticut caught just 241,000 pounds of lobster, and New York caught just 270,000 pounds.
This precipitous crash in the lobster fishery has been linked to two factors. First, climate change has led to warmer water temperatures in Long Island Sound. The area was already the southern edge of lobsters’ range, and areas that were once hospitable to lobsters quickly became too warm. A Massachusetts state biologist recently told a group of fishermen that he doubted lobsters would recover in waters south of Cape Cod any time soon, because water temperatures are simply so high that lobsters have moved north or farther offshore to lay their eggs. In addition, higher water temperatures may make conditions more favorable for the spread of a shell disease that makes lobsters unfit for sale.
Water temperatures aren’t the only thing linked to the lobster crash, however. During the 1990s, two pesticides were sprayed extensively in the New York area to control the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. These chemicals were later identified in the tissues of dead lobsters in Long Island Sound. Despite the claims of government scientists that there is not enough evidence to link pesticides to the lobster decline, in the mid-2000s, three chemical companies reached multimillion-dollar settlements with lobstermen for their role in the die-off. Pesticides have also been blamed in a smaller die-off in New Brunswick’s Passamaquoddy Bay.
This takes us back to Maine’s proposed bill. Methoprene and resmethrin are apparently used sparingly in Maine and have not been used by state agencies, but Kumiega says the legislation is a preventative measure to protect the state’s valuable lobster fishery. Some, however, are concerned the bill does not go far enough and might provide a “false sense of security.” The executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association told the Portland Press-Herald that lobstermen worry banning two pesticides could limit research into other environmental changes and pollutants that could harm the lobster fishery. They want a more thorough analysis of which pesticides might harm lobsters, and the state seems to agree—the Department of Marine Resources is considering a sediment survey of Casco Bay to assess the presence of pollutants.
With such a large portion of Maine’s fishing revenues dependent on lobsters, more research into what could deplete their population – whether it’s fishing pressure, climate change, or pesticides – will be critically important. Connecticut and New York have already lost a once-thriving fishery, and Maine’s marine ecosystems and coastal communities can’t afford to do the same.