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Are Pesticides Killing Rhode Island Lobsters?

Rhode Island lobstermen are worried that a pesticide used to control the development of mosquito larvae is killing young lobsters in Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

The product, sold under the trade name Altosid, is deposited in storm drains to control the mosquito population. Many of the storm drains in Rhode Island's seaside communities empty directly into the bay.

Altosid is made of methoprene, a larvicide, that when applied, reduces the number of adult mosquitoes and thus reduces human risk from mosquito borne diseases such as EEE and West Nile virus. Rhode Island lobstermen and many environmentalists oppose the use of methoprene because the chemical also kills lobster larvae.

The lobstermen argue that Maine is the only East Coast fishery where the lobster population is at acceptable, sustainable levels because, unlike other East Coast fisheries, Maine bans the use of methoprene and larvicides in its waters. Maine is also the only fishery where the lobster population does not suffer from shell disease. In all the other fisheries, Rhode Island included, lobster birth rates are noticeably below normal.

Lanny Dellinger, president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen's Association, agrees that no conclusive scientific study is available that specifically names methoprene as the sole cause of decreasing lobster birth rates and/or shell disease in Rhode Island.

"That's the point," Dellinger said. "Nobody knows. Process of elimination tells us it certainly is possible that methoprene is the cause, but we don't have scientific proof either way. We don't know if the concentration of methoprene in the bay is harming the lobster reproductive process, and we don't know if it isn't. However, it stands to reason that nothing should be introduced to any fishery without knowing the consequences."

Patrick Heaney, a Rhode Island lobsterman who has been fishing out of Newport for more than 16 years, agrees with Dellinger. In a letter to the editor of a local publication, Heaney admonished the state's Department of Environmental Management in conjunction with cities and towns across the state for dumping large amounts of highly toxic poison into the catch drains and sewers that empty into the bay. His letter was signed by 14 other local fishermen and people concerned about the welfare of the industry

"The long-term risks of this practice are becoming apparent to those who work in the lobster fishery in the state," Heaney said. "The ongoing incidence of shell disease and egg mortality, we believe, is a direct result of this environmentally questionable practice."

Rich Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen's Alliance, Chris Brown, president of Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association, and Dennis Ingram, a board member of the Ocean State Fishermen's Association, all agree. Rhode Island fishermen want the state to stop using larvicide pellets in catch basins and storm drains that empty into Rhode Island waters until conclusive scientific data is available declaring the chemicals safe.

Newport City Council member Charles Y. Duncan recently sent a fax to the Newport mayor asking for a resolution to be put on the next city council meeting agenda that bans the use of any of the toxic poisons, such as methoprene, in the mosquito abatement program. He suggested that the city look to less invasive methods of mosquito control. The results of the council's decision were not available at press time.

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