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Man-Made Chemicals Tied to Sick Lobsters

A Woods Hole scientist believes he may have found a key culprit behind a mysterious disease linked to a dramatic drop in lobster populations from Buzzards Bay to Long Island.

In research conducted this summer, Hans Laufer found that common man-made chemicals used in plastics, detergents and cosmetics had infiltrated the blood and tissue of lobsters, making them more vulnerable to a particularly virulent strain of shell disease.

"We need to use less plastic," warned Laufer, a molecular and cellular biology professor at the University of Connecticut who has been a researcher at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory for more than two decades.

In 2001, Laufer was one of many scientists investigating the mysterious die-off of lobsters in Long Island Sound, when he noticed high concentrations of man-made chemicals, known as alkyphenols, in the blood and tissues of lobsters afflicted with lobster shell disease.

The disease causes gross deformation of the lobster's protective shell, and it can interfere with growth and reproduction. In the worst cases, the shell is so badly pitted it prevents the lobster from molting, resulting in death.

"It looks like the shell has been eroded away by acid," said Robert Glenn, a state Division of Marine Fisheries senior biologist and director of the state's lobster program. Glenn said more research needs to be done to pinpoint the cause of the problem. "We don't have enough of a handle on the mechanism causing the disease," he said. First seen in Long Island Sound in the mid-1990s, the shell disease quickly spread up the coast into Southern New England and corresponded with a steep drop-off in the lobster harvest.

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