This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.

  July 10, 2000

What Killed the Lobsters? Search for
Answers Receives New Funding

The UConn scientists who were first to determine that a parasite was a probable cause of the massive Long Island Sound lobster kill have received two new grants totaling $108,000 to further their research.

Richard French, a UConn pathologist, and his colleagues at the Connecticut Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory have been awarded $98,000 from a research competition jointly funded by the Environmental Protection Agency's Long Island Sound Office and the Connecticut and New York Sea Grant programs.

The team consists of two other pathologists: Sylvain De Guise, an expert in immunotoxicology, and Salvatore Frasca, whose expertise with the electron microscope and molecular tools will play a significant role. Other participants include Spencer Russell and Tom Mullen, graduate students in aquatic animal health.

During the next year they will conduct a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive study of lobster health in Long Island Sound. Although the die-off took place in the western end of the sound last fall, shell disease was - and still is - taking a toll on lobster in the eastern sections of the sound, as well as in the waters off Rhode Island and Cape Cod.

"This study will give us a better sense of the whole picture in a timely manner," French says. "While we are collecting extensive lobster data, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation will be testing water and sediment samples. This combined effort is critical to better understanding the environmental conditions and contaminants that may be playing a role in lobster health."

The UConn team will examine about 500 of the large crustaceans, which will be collected routinely from five designated zones within the sound. An extensive battery of tests will be conducted on each lobster, including examinations for infectious disease and toxins, particularly pesticides, which have been a cause for concern vocalized by lobstermen.

Throughout the process, UConn researchers will work with Connecticut and New York environmental agencies to develop a tracking system for retrieving and monitoring information from lobstermen about the condition of their lobster catches. This procedure will serve as a red flag for developing problems. The sooner scientists are aware of any changes in the catch, the better opportunity they have for determining the source of the problem.

"By collecting and analyzing the scientific and observational data gathered by all the parties involved, we hope to provide information that will eliminate, or at least help control the threats to the Long Island Sound lobster industry," French says.

The UConn pathologist first began investigating the possible causes of the die-off last October. In November, he reported that a parasite - specifically a paramoeba - had been detected in every lobster tested by his research group. A paramoeba is a tiny, one-celled protozoan animal that targets the lobster's nervous system and destroys nerve tissue.

French believes, however, that the paramoeba may not be entirely responsible for the massive kill because of reports that other crustaceans and sea urchin have been dying in large numbers. Also, it is not known if the shell disease that is destroying lobster in the eastern sound is a consequence or an indication of the overall health of Long Island Sound.

The main goal of French's second research project is to fully characterize the parasite found in sick lobsters and to differentiate it from species of paramoeba that exist in other marine animals. New York Sea Grant is supporting that study with a $10,000 grant.

Edward Monahan, director of Connecticut Sea Grant, which also has funded some of French's work, says the researchers face a huge task. Given the critical need arising from the lobster fishery calamity in the sound and the range of pressing questions related to the crash of the lobster fishery, he says, additional funding is needed.

A source of additional funding may be the $14 million of emergency aid approved by Congress on June 30. The bill calls for $3.6 million in direct aid to lobstermen and $6.6 million for research into the cause of the die-off. French is hopeful UConn will receive some of that funding and is awaiting word from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration which will decide how the research dollars will be spent.

Janice Palmer