Northeast Cover Story
Trapped

By JOEL LANG
Northeast

September 03, 2000

As became their habit this summer, clouds are delaying the dawn when Nick Crismale's green Dodge pick-up crunches softly to a halt in the gravel boat yard on the Branford River.

Without pausing, Crismale descends a wooden ramp to the floating dock where his lobster boat, the Proud Mary, waits for him. He slides aside the door protecting the wheelhouse and awakens the boat's diesel engine. It is 5:20 a.m. in late July, the start of another work day in the peak of the Long Island Sound lobster season, and all is silent save for the engine's low rumble.

Crismale does not need to speak to Jimmy Davilla and Hector Avila, his crewmen who have arrived before him. Davilla has been with Crismale for three years; Avila for six months. They know the routine. They help remove a side window panel exposing the boat's hauling winch, pass their lunch coolers over the boat's low gunwale and cast off silken mooring ropes. One moment the Proud Mary is idling at the dock; the next it is gliding down the Branford River, past sleeping flocks of pleasure boats.

Crismale leans his weight against the boat's four-foot-high control console, as if propped at a bar over a beer. Instead of a mug, he fingers the spoked helm with one muscled hand. He is a big man, seemingly twice the size of Jimmy and Hector, who are in their 20s and half his age. Crismale, at 50, has the sloping shoulders and thickened middle of an ex-linebacker and carries himself with the same heavy grace. In fact, he's an ex-cop who started lobstering as a sideline nearly 30 years ago.

"It's funny, you come out here now you see all these boats, but in January and February all you see is ice out here," Crismale says, surveying the summer river.

Crismale fishes year-round, mostly for lobster, less often for clams. Only during lobster "runs," usually from mid-June to mid-August and again from October into December, does he go out every day. Today, Crismale expects to take it easier than he once might have, staying out only seven or eight hours to pull lobster traps from deep in the Sound. Today one thought leads to another.

"You know what?," Crismale says after remembering the winter ice, "I'm never going to be a wealthy man, so to pull an extra 40 traps starting at 4 o'clock in the morning, it's not worth it. It's funny, when I started, I thought I'd make a little extra money by running 50 traps. Now I'm up to 2,000. This is what it brought me to. My first boat I paid $1,500 for in 1972. That radar there I paid $4,000 for."

Crismale points to the radar instrument above his head and chuckles in self-amazement. The son of a longshoreman, he grew up in a housing project across the Hudson River from Manhattan. He came to Connecticut for college, then joined the North Branford police force. Last year, he had the Proud Mary, his biggest boat yet, custom-built in Nova Scotia for $225,000. He toyed with calling it the Excavator for its removable clamming dredge, but decided to name it for his mother. He believes the new 45-foot boat would have made her proud of him. She died when he was 17.

He is being reflective because he has a reporter on board and because he's still trying to come to terms with the harsher fate that has befallen him and the rest of the lobstermen of Long Island Sound. Last fall, after what for many fishermen had been a near-record summer, the lobster started vanishing from the Sound.

In the mid-Sound, where Crismale fishes, the fall catch declined as much as 70 percent. He began to worry he'd never be able to pay for his new boat. In the western end of the Sound, the fishing turned far worse. For lobstermen from the Connecticut coast below Norwalk and from the opposite Long Island shore, the catch declined to almost nothing. Lobstermen brought up traps that either held dead or dying lobsters, or were just empty. Lobsters brought up apparently healthy died in trucks on the way to market. Along the western Sound, lobstermen began to sell their traps and then their boats, and a few, their homes.

There have been lobster die-offs in the past. But this one was massive, sudden and unprecedented. The scale of the catastrophe was slow to sink in and the search for its cause slow to begin. In late fall, newly caught lobsters were sent to the animal pathobiology lab at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, where scientists soon detected a parasite that was feasting on the lobsters' primitive nerve systems.

Dr. Richard French, the lab chief, classified the parasite as a one-celled paramoeba. But French was not able to precisely identify the almost formless paramoeba. He thought it might be a new variety of a known species, or a new species entirely. No one knew how long it had been in the Sound or how it got into the lobsters.

The lobster autopsies added a second disease emergency to French's lab. It was already being overwhelmed with the carcasses of dead crows brought there to be tested for the presence of the West Nile virus. More certainly a new invader than the lobster paramoeba and far more frightful, the virus had caused a public health panic in metropolitan New York and southwestern Connecticut.

After it was discovered in early September, some feared the virus might have been unleashed as an act of biological terrorism. One report pointed to Iraq's Saddam Hussein as a suspect. But the virus was rarely lethal, and it could have migrated here by chance. Still, the reaction to the threat was war-like. To kill the mosquitoes that spread the virus from birds to people, officials in New York and Connecticut ordered the spraying of insecticides in areas where sick people or dead crows suggested the virus had a foothold.

Over the north shore of Long Island, near New York City, helicopters sprayed a chemical called malathion. An organophosphate akin to nerve gas, it kills adult mosquitoes by paralysis. In Westchester County and in Connecticut, in the vicinity of Stamford and Darien, trucks sprayed Anvil and Scourge, insecticides whose main toxins are closely related chemicals called resmethrin and sumithrin. Less potent than malathion, they kill in a similar fashion. Connecticut also stepped up the use of methoprene, a synthetic hormone that prevents larvae from developing into adults.

Methoprene, along with a bacterial concoction called Bti, are the two insecticides favored by the state's mosquito control program. It began in 1997 after an outbreak of Eastern Equine encephalitis, another potentially lethal, mosquito-borne disease. Methoprene and Bti are dumped in the form of pellets or briquettes in places where mosquitoes breed - in catch basins, ponds and salt marshes.

Scientifically, the lobster paramoeba and the West Nile virus have nothing in common. It is only coincidence that both can infect their victims' nervous systems, causing forms of encephalitis. Still, the outbreaks of both happened about the same time.

At the UConn lab, French recalled, "We were doing crows and then the lobsters started coming in. The running joke was, `Maybe the West Nile virus is killing lobsters too.' But there is a link, and that link is the pesticide application."French, who is 40 and resembles the actor Gary Busey, has been careful to say pesticides may merely be one factor in the lobster die-off, or none at all. No one was looking when the lobster started to vanish. That time, in late summer and early fall, is a "black box," he said. French cannot even say for certain that the paramoeba was the final killing agent. He has been unable to culture the paramoeba so that it can be introduced into a healthy lobster and watched under controlled laboratory conditions.

The lobstermen cannot prove pesticides are to blame for the die-off either. But that is what they say they believe, and they have sued the manufacturers of malathion, Anvil, Scourge and methoprene for $125 million. Crismale is a lead plaintiff in the class action suit filed in federal court on Long Island. For him, the die-off and government's possible culpability in it has brought other changes he could not have imagined when he was a town cop lobstering part-time.

As president of the Connecticut Commercial Lobstermen's Association, he's become a public person, and also a seat-of-the-pants environmentalist. He's declined overtures from the Green Party, whose radicalism makes him uncomfortable. But he's in regular contact with Fairfield County activists, who, like him, think the reckless use of pesticides poses a greater threat than the West Nile virus. In late July, more birds were discovered with the virus. As feared, it had not been eradicated and the spraying was about to begin again.

Now, it is nearing 6 a.m. It is light, but the sky and the water are only different shades of gray. The slit where the Branford River enters the Sound is no longer visible. Jimmy and Hector have begun to shift lobster bait, salted herring, from one blue drum to another. It stinks, but not too badly. Crismale says it's a fallacy that lobster like rotten fish. The bait he uses is just a day or two old and costs $40 a drum.

Crismale has been alternately explaining the lobster business and griping about it. He can't get over the idea that the government which regulates lobstermen every which way ordered the spraying that caused the die-off.

"That's what kind of irks you. It's kind of hard to swallow," he says.

"Now you say we have to conserve. These lobster wouldn't be here if we weren't here. That's proven by a study in Maine. They took the traps out for two years and there were no lobsters. We were feeding them."

Crismale thinks lobstermen get more respect in Maine and Canada. He takes vacations in Nova Scotia, where his boat was built. "I get lost up there," he says. "You lose the reality of Connecticut, of fishing here. What you have there is a fishery that's recognized as an industry. It's supported by the government. You go up there and you kind of mesh with those people and it's nice. You have a lot in common."

Unlike its Maine picture, lobstering isn't pretty in Long Island Sound. There are few harbors sprinkled with brightly painted buoys like confetti. Over the years, the number of full-time Connecticut lobstermen has shrunk to around 225, while those remaining, like Crismale, have run more and more traps from bigger boats ever further from shore. Overfishing hasn't pushed the lobster out, he says, even though the lobstermen have agreed to trap limits; it's the run-off from the coastal towns' overburdened sewage treatment plants. He wants to know why a country that can put a man on the moon can't build a better sewage system or why people worry more about the rain forests in South America than Long Island Sound.

"This is New England's largest natural resource and we're not taking care of it," Crismale says. The Proud Mary has left Branford harbor three miles behind, and as he speaks he is surrounded by his salt water subject. "Nobody seems to want to accept we're stock assessors. I'll pull a few traps and there won't be anything. Eventually, I'll wind up in the middle of the Sound and I'll start catching lobsters. We know where the lobsters are. I'm looking around. You don't see anything here at all. We used to catch all the way into that harbor. Now we're meeting the New York fishermen in the middle."

Crismale's forecast is off just a bit. At 6:10, he throttles the engine back to idle, climbs into a pair of rubberized overalls, slips off his leather shore boots and steps into shiny white fishing boots. In another setting on somebody else, they could be mistaken for go-go boots.

Dressed to work, he eases the Proud Mary into a tight circle. It rocks hard in its own wake as it slows to a stop. With a wooden gaff so worn it could be the one he started with in 1972, he snags a buoy line and in the same unbroken motion threads it onto the hauling winch. The winch is fastened next to the helm, above Crismale's shoulder. The arrangement allows him to steer the boat and run the winch without taking a step.

The winch whines. Crismale reaches for the trap line and pulls the first dripping wire trap onto the gunwale. Jimmy stands next to him, ready to assist. What happens next is hard to see because they work fast, huddled over the trap. In seconds, Crismale turns and tosses a lobster onto the top of a back-up holding tank. The lobster's still flopping when the winch whines again and Crismale pulls the next trap onto the boat. In 10 minutes 10 traps yield seven lobster big enough to keep.

"I expected to get three or four out of that trawl," Crismale says, then reasons, "This is the height of the season right now."

He gets 11 lobster from the second trawl that ends at 6:30. Crismale puts out his traps in strings of 10 or 12, each trap separated by 150 feet of line. On a typical day, he'll pull about a fifth of his 2,000 traps, repeating 40 or so "trawls." To finish in eight hours, the crew must maintain a five-trawl-an-hour pace, and they do.

At 6:35, Crismale is gaffing the buoy for the third trawl. By now, their synchronized routine is clear. Crismale pulls the trap to the side of the boat. Jimmy releases the stretch cord that holds the trap top shut. He removes the mesh bag of old bait and snaps a new bag of bait into place. Jimmy may help extract lobster if there are more than a few. They can get tangled in the trap's interior netting.

But Crismale personally handles each and every lobster. Most he can eyeball to judge whether they've reached legal size - 3 1/4 inches from eye socket to the end of the front carapace. Such a lobster will grow to that size in five to seven years and weigh a little over a pound - and few will escape the traps to grow any older or larger. The small lobsters he tosses back with barely a glance. Only occasionally does Crismale have to resort to his lobster gauge. "I don't know who came up with these for measuring," he says, looking at the brass gauge. "You stick it in his eyes. Seems kind of cruel to me."

Hector's job is to feed Jimmy the bait bags and to slide the emptied traps to the back of the boat. As he does, they trail black muck from the Sound bottom. Hector positions the traps in rows of five across the broad, open deck. The deck is covered in squares of rubbery tile that Crismale says is a lot easier on the legs and feet than the fiberglass underneath. The stern has no transom. The Proud Mary is like a pick-up truck without a tailgate. The trawl ends when Crismale accelerates away, tossing the lead buoy of the trap line overboard. The drag of the buoy whips the line of newly baited traps after it. The traps splash into the Sound like depth-charges.

In the moments it takes to reach the next trap line, Jimmy and Hector band the lobsters, using calipers to slip thick elastics over their claws. Lobsters can come out of traps fighting. Some will rise up on the front legs and spread their claws wide. They act like a boxer opening his arms in a "come on and get me" challenge. Some, the culls, are missing one or both claws. Crismale says lobsters can be cannibalistic, and defensive ones may sacrifice their claws if attacked. Eventually the claws grow back. The intact lobsters go into the main holding tank that is fed by water pumped continuously from the Sound. The culls go into a barrel freshened by overflow from the holding tank.

During a trawl, Crismale, Jimmy and Hector are too busy to talk. The noise of the winch and the boat's diesel drown out conversation anyway. Today, Crismale uses the time between trawls to lecture on lobstering.

Long Island Sound marks the southern-most edge of the lobsters' range. But because of its warmer water, the Sound lobster may molt twice a year, in late spring and late summer, instead of once. During a molt they burrow three feet into the mud or hide in rocky crevices. (A UConn biologist who dives has found that lobster may dwell like cliff swallows in places where the Sound slopes steeply.) They grow larger with each molt and emerge hungry. That is when the seasonal runs begin.

The trap's design is deceptively clever. One conical web of netting lets the lobster into the trap's "kitchen." A second web leads the lobster into the trap's "parlor" from which legal size lobster cannot escape. But the trap also has narrow rectangular openings that permit young lobster to exit after feasting on the bait.

"The trap's got to be setting there for a long time before they'll go in. I don't know why that is. Maybe they're more cautious," Crismale says, now well out in the Sound, where the water is 70 to 90 feet deep.

"You ask yourself, `What are we doing here?' You got Long Island there. You got Connecticut there. You got fishermen all along here. We're farming them. We're feeding them and releasing them.

"I don't think people realize how small Long Island Sound is. If you could visualize this - if you took away the water - what would you have? A bunch of lobsters like chickens running around on the bottom. But this way here it's just a little more challenging to catch them."

One trap comes up alive with lobster.

"You think that's a lot of lobster?" Crismale says. "Last year, we'd have 30 or 40 in a trap. You'd think, `You know what? You got a future here.' Well, that's excessive. You'd have 20 or 30. We'd keep four or five of them."

From another trap, Crismale pulls a lobster that's missing a claw and whose shell is still soft. It reminds him of the weak lobsters he began to see last fall.

"You know what irks you," he says, tossing it back into the water, "I'm going to let that lobster go, only to have the pesticide kill him. My father used to say, `Take care of your pennies and the pennies will take care of the dollars.' The correlation here is take care of the individual lobster and the lobster will take care of the population."

The lobstermen's case against the pesticides is based on circumstantial evidence and is as intriguing as a good whodunit. Crismale explained it in interviews on shore.

The summer of 1999 was one of the hottest and driest on record. Lobster don't like hot water; it can decrease their oxygen supply, causing a condition called hypoxia. Then in early September, when the lobster were entering their second molt, New York began spraying for West Nile virus.

On Sept. 16, Hurricane Floyd arrived, overwhelming sewage treatment plants and flooding the Sound with pesticide that in more normal weather would have dissipated. Connecticut did not begin spraying resmethrin and putting out extra methoprene until after Floyd had passed. But the weather remained wet, giving the Sound a second dose of pesticide.

Floyd, said Crismale, was the "delivery system." The pesticides could have reacted with the chemical run-off from sewage plants "like a bomb going off." Already, 800,000 cubic yards of muck dredged from Mamaroneck harbor was being dumped in the Sound off Norwalk.

He has heard the arguments exonerating insecticides, such as that they decay too quickly to reach the Sound at killing strength. Resmethrin, for instance, breaks down in sunlight in a matter of hours. But it can last many days in water. Similarly, malathion breaks down in a day or so in sunlight, but can remain potent in soil for up to three weeks. Methoprene can last for up to two days in water.

He said past die-offs, sometimes blamed on the lobstermen's efficient aquaculture that keeps the lobster population dense, young and susceptible to epidemic disease, have been more gradual. In the central and eastern Sound, the 1999 catch had been strong. In the western Sound, below Bridgeport, it had been off all year. But it began to nose-dive in October. The suddenness of the die-off points to a singular shock; to something discharged into the Sound.

"The reason we feel that way is so many lobsters were found dead in the traps," Crismale said. "The lobster gets in there, then boom, he can't get away Those lobster couldn't move."

(Other lobstermen tell the same story. In Norwalk, Mike Horvath, the president of the western Sound lobstermen's association, said living lobsters came up stiff. "They just didn't move. They looked like they were Alzheimer lobster." Horvath has sold his boat. He said lobstermen need to average a "pound-a-pot," or one legal lobster per trap, to stay in business. Those still working in the western Sound, he said, "aren't finding enough lobster to call it a lobster business."

(Don Voorhees, a Norwalk lobsterman who has a sideline as a contractor, said he was running only 300 traps this season and pulling 100 traps to get 50 pounds of lobster. He said he'd gone deep-sea tuna fishing for three days last fall just before the die-off began. "When we came back, all the traps, whatever was in them, was dead. Whatever day it happened, it happened like you hit them with a hammer," Voorhees said.)

Crismale allowed that the paramoeba found in French's lab ultimately may have killed the weakened lobster, but doubted it could have killed healthy ones by itself. Lobster are accustomed to such parasites.

"The paramoeba gets into the lobster when their immune system is compromised. But why did the paramoeba get in? We feel it was the pesticide," Crismale said.

"The lobster [now] are as healthy as they ever have been. So my question is: Where is the paramoeba? Where did it go? The lobster that did not succumb to the pesticide are healthy. It's just like a mosquito. You spray the mosquito, he dies. You miss one, he lives to bite another day. The lobsters, they're bugs, just like the mosquitoes. If you get him, he dies."

Scientists have frustrated the lobstermen by giving their pesticide theory halfway support.

One who might be their hero is Hans Laufer, a UConn microbiologist who has studied crustaceans for decades. In the 1980s, Laufer did research that showed a form of methoprene called Altosid, the larvicide used in Connecticut even before the West Nile virus outbreak, could kill water fleas, a kind of crustacean, exactly the same way it kills mosquitoes.

"I see crustacea as an aquatic insect. Physiologically, they're very close," Laufer said, reached at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., where he is working this summer.

Laufer said malathion and resmethrin also could kill lobsters. His question is whether the pesticides could have reached the lobster in fatal doses. He said he suspected the lobstermen were picking on the pesticides in hopes of collecting damages from chemical companies. But Laufer didn't say the lobstermen were all wet, either.

"My feeling is the biggest factor is temperature, a global warming," Laufer said. "Last summer we had 63 days of 22 degrees centigrade or above. Then we had Hurricane Floyd and the rain dumping all that run-off with the insecticides that was sprayed. All of these things seem to come together.

"To blame it on the insecticides, I don't think we have enough evidence. Its concentration [in the Sound] may be negligible. There might be enough to finish off [the lobster]. I just don't know."

In early summer, the federal government approved $14 million for disaster aid and research. But little of the aid money was doled out. The only research, funded at $98,000, was being done by a UConn team led by French. French regrets losing so much time.

"One of the concerns we have is getting back to that black box," French said, referring to the void surrounding the die-off.

"Where we stand right now with the situation with the lobster is there is an association with the paramoeba. The prevailing thought is there may be a bigger picture. There may be environmental stressors. The question is, what are the environmental stressors? What are the oxygen levels? What are the pesticide levels? It would be na´ve to think it would be one thing that could be doing this.

"One of the problems where you're dealing with contaminants is they don't necessarily cause pathology in the animal. In other words, they don't cause damage to tissue you can see pathologically. The animals we tested for these contaminants we got in November. It's possible we wouldn't pick it up because the product was already gone.

"Hopefully we'll be able to rule things out. But we're starting with a very long list of things to rule out. That's what makes it a challenge. The list is so long, it will take some time."

Pesticides remain on that long list, French said.

"They are applying a lot of pesticides and they are applying it in a lot of different forms," he said. "They are being applied to kill mosquitoes, but we all know they just don't kill mosquitoes. You're disturbing an ecosystem."

Lobstermen are not the only ones worried about what the pesticides deployed against the West Nile virus may be doing to the ecosystem. Last year fear of the virus outweighed fear of the pesticides. In New York, seven elderly people died of West Nile encephalitis and 62 others were sick with its flu-like symptoms. Connecticut saw no cases. So far this year, New York has had only three cases and Connecticut again none. But the pendulum of fear started to swing the other way, even before the rising count of dead crows forced government officials to concede the spraying hadn't worked.

In the Fairfield County hot zone, the pesticide protest has been led by a group called Connecticut SAFE (Seeking Alternatives for the Environment). One of its founders is the president of the area Sierra Club and the other is a young mother named Rivka Lieber, who confers often with Crismale.

"I'm not the eco-nut who walks around in Birkenstocks. I drive my Volvo like the rest of the Fairfield County moms," Lieber said, soon after spraying resumed in her hometown of Stamford. TV news crews had filmed her evacuating her children, one of whom has severe asthma. She chafes at public health officials' assurance that pesticides are safe and were used sparingly. In Stamford, resmethrin was sprayed in a two-mile radius.

"You have to do your radius formula," said Lieber. "They say a two-mile radius. My God, a two-mile radius is 13 square miles. That's 30 percent of Stamford. It's 30,000 people. I had to give it a second thought myself."

Lieber, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, argues pesticides are dangerous because their targets quickly build up resistance against them and because no one can predict their long-term impact.

One of the documents Lieber distributes as part of her public information campaign is a scientific paper published last year in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It found synthetic pyrethroid insecticides, such as resmethrin, can mimic estrogen and increase the risk of breast cancer. During the West Nile outbreak, it was often reported that natural pyrethroid is derived from chrysanthemums.

"I get upset when they start giving the impression this is a flower spray. It's not organic. It's not natural. That's not a debate. It's a fact," Lieber said.

"The problem with pesticides is there's no smoking gun. This gives public officials the opportunity to hide," she said.

"You can't think you can kill off a whole lobster species and think it doesn't affect us in the long run. We're part of the food chain here," she said. "If this is a man-made disaster with these lobster, the cost of trying to fix it is astronomical."

Lieber says the alarm people ought to be heeding is the one sounded long ago in "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. A newer authority she cites is John Wargo, a Yale University scientist who recently published "Our Children's Toxic Legacy," a book that traces the modern history of pesticide use.

One of Wargo's arguments is that government regulation is haphazard and misleading in regards to safety. The government cannot fully test all the thousands of pesticides. Those that it does test usually are looked at one by one and rated on their potential to cause acute disease, often cancer. The actual danger they pose may be more like that of lead, which poisons slowly by accumulation.

Wargo said he's planning to write about the response to the West Nile virus. It makes an ideal case study in the allure and risks of pesticides.

"Using airplanes to spray pesticides is like using a sledge hammer when you need a scalpel," he said. Deploying the potent malathion against the virus was a "very aggressive" strategy, he said. "It's almost like a proxy for a drug you could take for a disease that is not treatable."

Even the risk of the supposedly milder insecticides, like the resmethrin used in Connecticut, may have been underestimated.

"It has the impression among the toxicology community that the human health risk is low. But has it been tested for immunologic effects? Has it been tested for the effects on the endocrine system? The answer is no," Wargo said.

"It's important to know what the government doesn't know. It's important to know what the government has not asked. One of the great mysteries of pesticides is what are the effects of their inert ingredients. The inert contents are protected [information] as business uses. They can be pretty nasty compounds. That's something I've been trying to find out. I've been kind of butting up against a stone wall."

Asked if pesticides might have caused the lobster die-off, Wargo said, "I don't even know what was released. I don't know what 95 percent of the formulation was. And you would have to know that before you can make a judgment."

At 10 a.m., almost on the dot, the Proud Mary comes to rest in mid-Sound for what amounts to a coffee break. Around the trap winch, muck is splattered in all directions over the boat's once white fiberglass. Jimmy and Hector eat sliced bread sandwiches in silence. Crismale pours coffee from an ancient metal thermos. Without having to count, he says they've pulled 220 traps. "We don't take many breaks," he says.

The day has stayed overcast. The sky is just a lighter shade of gray than it was at dawn. On the boat, there is not much sense of wind or even the water's low chop. All the attention is focused on the work, and the work begins again without having seemed to stop.

The main holding tank finally begins to roil with lobster. It looks vaguely like a giant-sized picnic cooler balanced in the boat's midriff. With water pumping through it, the tank must weigh several tons. Crismale says that last summer the main tank would already be full and the back-up tank opened.

"We got two more trawls to fill them up," Crismale says around noon. "We're ecstatic to see what we're seeing here. It was slow a week ago. Then we started to see something.

"I would say right now, if nothing else happens, we should recover in three to four years. I don't know about down near Norwalk. I don't know if they got enough lobster left."

Crismale fears upcoming generations of young lobster perished unseen in the die-off. He's heard reports that biologists in early summer dives found sections of the western Sound barren of not just lobsters, but crabs and other crustacea. He complains again about the slow search for the cause of the die-off and its uncertainty.

"I wish they would just come out and disprove it. I mean show us. We're not toxicologists. Show us it wasn't the pesticides," he says. "But don't tell us you're still investigating and in the meantime you're still spraying it."

The main holding tank is fairly brimming with lobster when Crismale declares the fishing over for the day. But the back-up tank is still shut, as he knew it would be. The trip back to the harbor takes about 45 minutes. Jimmy and Hector spend most of that time hosing off the Proud Mary and scraping at the accumulated muck with brooms.

Crismale guesses they've gotten about 350 pounds of lobster, worth about $1,100. Because few lobster survive long enough in Long Island Sound to grow much beyond legal size, the catch averages out to about a pound-a-pot. It's a day he can live with.

The river is still quiet when the Proud Mary noses back to her dock a little before 2 p.m. Earlier, back out on the Sound, Crismale had said he couldn't imagine giving up lobstering, despite its rigors and risks.

"You know what it is? It's the sense of accomplishment. One good year will make you go another two or three," he said.

"My dentist says he'd trade places with me in a minute. I say you go out there. People see you coming in. They see you unloading the lobsters. They think it's nice. They don't know what it's like."

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Image: Lobsterman Nick Crismale hauls in a trawl of lobster pots, some of the thousands of traps he has in Long Island Sound, during a day of lobster fishing on the Sound.