Stopping West Nile virus by killing baby mosquitoes, or saving Long Island Sound’s vanishing lobsters. It’s a debate that’s been going on for more than a decade and the pro-lobster brigade has finally won.
Sort of. Some say it’s a limited victory that comes too late in the game to matter.
Gov. Dannel Malloy this month signed legislation banning (or at least partially banning) two pesticides used against mosquitoes that carry the West Nile virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) — diseases that can kill people.
Connecticut fishermen and their allies have argued for years that methoprene and resmethrin — both approved for anti-mosquito use by the feds — were also deadly villains in the rapid disappearance of the Sound’s lobsters.
Until last year, when sensitive new tests discovered traces of those chemicals in dying Long Island Sound lobsters, most scientists insisted the pesticides were not to blame. They pointed to warming of the Sound’s waters, general pollution and vulnerability to disease as the triggers for the dramatic collapse of the lobster population.
So you’d think the lobster folks would be elated about the new law passed by the General Assembly.
The ban stops the use of methoprene (a “larvicide” designed to slaughter infant mosquitoes) and resmethrin (an “adulticide” that targets grown-up blood suckers) in coastal areas. Those chemicals can still be used in New Haven, where the last big West Nile virus outbreak occurred in 2004, or in other areas in crisis situations, but can’t be used without oversight from the state’s mosquito-control program.
The trouble is, say some fishermen, that there aren’t enough lobsters left in the Sound for the new partial ban to make any difference.
“We fought for this for years,” says Nick Crismale, president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen’s Association. “So it’s nice to see somebody recognize [the problem]… but it’s just too late for the industry.”
Crismale is a blue-eyed, weather-beaten, 63-year-old who’s been fishing in the Sound most of his life. Now he’s ready to call it quits.
“I don’t think the resource can rebuild,” Crismale says, “because there’s not enough [lobsters] left to rebound” and overcome things like poor water quality and increasing numbers of predator fish like striped bass. “The food chain has been broken down.”
He talks about fishermen putting out 200 or 300 lobster pots and pulling out three or four lobsters big enough to keep. Most restaurants and seafood shacks along the Connecticut coast are only serving lobsters from Maine and Canada because the ones that come out of the Sound are simply too few and too small.
People like Crismale can’t understand why it’s taken the state so long to ban these pesticides. For years, cities and states have been dumping the stuff into storm drains, catch basins and ditches to kill mosquitoes, and lobster experts warned that anything that kills those tiny arthropods will also hurt a big aquatic arthropods like lobsters.
“Common sense is in play here and it’s been ignored,” Crismale says sadly.
Theodore Andreadis is a scientist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and he argues just as strongly that scientific sense has been ignored when lawmakers passed this new pesticide ban.
“The data supporting the methoprene ban is very weak,” says Andreadis, who’s in charge of the state program to test mosquitoes for dangerous diseases like Wet Nile and EEE. “Banning the use of this product is premature.”
Andreadis says the only evidence to date that these pesticides have anything to do with the disastrous lobster decline were those few sickly examples taken from the middle of the Sound last year.
The fact that tiny amounts of methoprene and resmethrin were found in the livers or reproductive organs of those dying lobsters led Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to do a new, more intensive study. Andreadis believes the legislature should have waited for those results.
Bill Hyatt, chief of the state’s bureau of natural resources, says the findings from the study should be available by late November. (It would have been months earlier except there were delays in funding for the tests.)
About 90 lobsters were collected from Long Island Sound for testing, along with about 40 from waters off Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.
Connecticut has been testing mosquitoes for West Nile since 1997. Today, Andreadis’ outfit operates 91 traps in areas all across the state, and tests 180,000- 200,000 mosquitoes each year. The whole concept is to “get a better sense of the risk to the public,” Andreadis says.
There are actually 52 different mosquito species in Connecticut, but only a few carry diseases that can threaten human life. (The West Nile baddie’s nom de guerre is “Culex pipiens.”) Standing stagnant water in places like catch basins and storm drains and ditches are ideal breeding grounds, and the ideal conditions for raising mosquitoes here involve a wet spring and high summer heat.
Andreadis notes that the heavy rains we’ve had in recent weeks actually weren’t good for Culex pipiens, since the mosquito’s larvae were all washed out of those standing water places into rivers and the Sound where fish gobble them up.
Of course, those storms have left plenty of standing water in their wakes, and now we’ve got a heat wave on, and that suits mosquitoes just fine. Hot temperatures also accelerate the development of the virus inside the little buggers.
“We could see the virus beginning to build,” Andreadis warns.
Since West Nile was first spotted in Connecticut in 1999, state records show that 52 people have been infected here (plus three state residents infected while traveling elsewhere) and five people have died. There is no vaccine against West Nile and no specific cure, but the vast majority of people infected do survive.
Andreadis thinks the ban on methoprene, and the exceptions for its use, makes no sense.
“In Connecticut, very little methoprene is used on a regular basis,” he points out. And methoprene isn’t the pesticide of choice in the event that there’s an outbreak of West Nile somewhere.
Andreadis says that, if his tests discovered an infestation of West Nile somewhere and it was considered a crisis, the sort of pesticide laid down would target adult mosquitoes carrying the disease. It would basically be too late to use methoprene to kill the larvae.
Hyatt insists the partial ban “doesn’t hinder our ability to respond to a crisis at all.” He says it simply puts on a new “level of oversight that previously didn’t exist.”
At this stage, Crismale doesn’t really care that much about new tests or studies. He’s giving up fishing for a living.
“They’ve worn my optimism out,” he shrugs. “I’m done.”