Lobster disease one more headache for fishing industry

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Public symposium Aug. 10-11 to discuss research results, implications

KINGSTON, R.I. – Aug. 5, 2010 – The lobster industry in southern New England is in crisis as lobster numbers decline and lobster prices crash, and one of the culprits may be a disease that is affecting local populations of the popular crustacean.

Epizootic lobster shell disease was first noticed in 1996 when fishermen observed small black spots on lobster shells. In recent years many shells have become completely infected, with the worst shells becoming entirely covered and degraded. About 30 percent of the lobsters caught in the region in the past several years have been infected with the disease.

“We believe there’s a suite of bacteria involved that are causing the lesions, but we don’t really know why the bacteria is now attacking some of the lobsters so aggressively. Something else must be going on,” said Kathy Castro, a URI fisheries researcher who chairs the executive committee of the New England Lobster Research Initiative. “The bottom line may be that the lobsters are stressed, which probably makes them more susceptible to the bacteria.”

The researchers involved in 15 federally funded research projects designed to provide answers about the disease will discuss what they have learned at the 9th annual Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium on August 10 and 11 in the Center for Biotechnology and Life Sciences on the Kingston campus. The symposium is free to attend, but registration is required. To register online, visit http://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/baird/2010_diseases.html and click “Registration.” Or call Tracy Kennedy at (401) 874-6800.

According to Castro, the lobster committee of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is concerned that the low number of lobsters, coupled with a lack of young lobsters, provides a dismal picture for lobster stocks in Southern New England. One of the questions that still remains is whether the low numbers of lobsters in Rhode Island waters is part of a normal cycle or not.

“Lobsters are hard to understand,” Castro said. “In the 1970s we didn’t have many lobsters around, and in the 80s and 90s we had them coming out of everywhere. We don’t know why there used to be so many of them, and now we don’t know why there’s so many less. Fishermen got used to the high numbers, and it may be that now they are just back down to more normal levels. It may be related to water temperature, predator abundance, or shifts in the ecosystem.

“But,” she added, “the disease issue is new and concerning. And we also have a reported incidence of blind lobsters, and we don’t know what’s causing that either.”