Northeast Cover Story
By JOEL LANG
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
(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
(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,"
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
"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
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
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
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,"
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
"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."
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.