Monday, June 30, 2008

Beach Report: Is the Water Safe?

If you like to swim in salt water and you're wondering just how clean Long Island Sound's beaches are, you have to read yesterday's Hartford Courant story. Here are the money paragraphs:

... Though by and large they are well-groomed and well-managed, on any given summer day, dozens of swimming spots are just one good rainfall away from closing. The problem: storm water runoff that carries feces from wild animals or pets, and contaminants from highways, subdivisions, malls and farms into the water.

Over the last decade, swimmers lost at least 3,000 days to bacteria-related closings, based on The Courant's examination of 10 years of closure data for Long Island Sound beaches and state parks, and four years of records for other lakes and ponds.

And while it's hard to track how many people are getting sick as a result, federal officials say instances of water-born illness contracted in recreational waters are on the rise around the country.

Already this season, the 10 most affected areas have lost at least 45 swimming days to contamination.

Some areas have only occasional problems, and a few are virtually pristine — Hammonasset Beach State Park, the busiest in the state, has not had a closure in at least a decade, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. And beaches east of Fairfield County, including West Haven, have steadily improved.

But several areas continue to suffer persistent problems, and the problem does not discriminate by location or real estate value.

A lot of the beaches in the Courant study are inland. But here's what the authors -- David Funkhouser and Josh Kovner -- say about Sound beaches in Fairfield County.

Fairfield County beaches sit below land paved over with homes, malls, highways and industry: When it rains, instead of filtering through the soil, water is likely to run into storm drains and into the Sound, taking oils, dirt and other contaminants with it. Also, tides flush more lightly here than in the deeper, eastern end of the Sound, where contamination is less of a problem.

At the 144 beaches along the Connecticut coast that report testing data to the state, there were 65 closings for one or more days in 2007; 56 of those were in Fairfield County.

I think by the way that the Courant overstates the issue of people getting sick, not just because many beaches are closed preemptively but because they level of bacteria needed to close a beach is far, far lower than then amount of bacteria needed to make a person sick. Regardless, it's a good story, which everyone who goes to the beach on the Sound should read. Check it out here.

The Courant, by the way, is cutting its news staff by almost 60 jobs, from 232 to 175, which is bad news from Connecticut and the region.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Hawk. Duck!

Broadwing hawks nest above the road near our house every year. Here's a picture I took yesterday of the nestlings. It's worth noting that out of concern for my scalp, I took the photos from the safety of my car. Read this to understand what I'm talking about.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lobster Shell Disease and Plastics: More Still

The mystery of why lobsters from southern New England suffer from shell rot is less of a mystery than why newspapers around here are missing UConn professor Hans Laufer's research into the link between shell rot and the chemicals that result when plastic bottles break down in the environment.

Yesterday's Providence Journal had a long story, by the usually-reliable Peter Lord, about a decision in many coastal Rhode Island towns to stop using a chemical called methoprene to kill mosquito larvae because of complaints from lobstermen who assert that methoprene is causing lobsters to grow more slowly, resulting in a lower lobster catch. Here's an excerpt:

The lobstermen vow to keep up their campaign until every town stops using the chemical.

Ingram, Pat Heaney and Lanny Dellinger, president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, met near their boats at the State Pier here recently and explained why they think something is happening in Narragansett Bay and the public should be concerned.

“We figure there won’t be a lobster industry in a short time if this keeps up,” said Dellinger. “All the state wants to do is control us, but you can’t keep polluting the environment and still get fish.”

Local lobster catches topped off in 1999 with about 3,500 tons. Each of the following years got progressively worse. In 2005, the last year with complete figures, the take was less than 1,500 tons.

In response, the lobstermen have greatly reduced the number of traps they set and accepted one new size restriction after another designed to leave lobsters in the water longer so they can successfully reproduce.

Then Lord throws in a mention of shell rot:

Still, the catch remains low. And many lobsters, particularly those caught close to shore, are coming up with a disfiguring, and still unexplained, shell disease.

Now the lobstermen are finding oddities never seen before in their traps: female lobsters that have molted their shells while they are still covered with eggs.

And later:

An effort is under way to answer some of the lobstermen’s questions. Thanks to a $2.3-million grant sponsored in 2006 by Sen. Jack Reed and Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, dozens of lobsters were pulled out of the Bay last week and shipped to 15 researchers around the country. They will appraise the lobsters’ health and look for answers to the shell disease and for indications of methoprene.

“I look at shell disease and it doesn’t make any sense,” says Kathleen Castro, a Rhode Island Sea Grant fisheries extension leader who is leading the lobster research project. “It’s a huge warning that we’re doing a number on our ecosystem.”

But there is an explanation for lobster shell disease: it's caused by alkylphenyls, chemicals that are released when bottles and other plastics degrade in the environment. As Professor Laufer said on the CBC, they are endocrine disruptors and they mimic crustacean hormones.

Now that might not be the only explanation, and the 15 researchers might find something else, but it is an explanation, by a real scientist.

Odd too that Kathleen Castro of Rhode Island Sea Grant didn't know of (or didn't tell Lord of) Laufer's work; her colleagues at Connecticut Sea Grant helped publicize Laufer's work.

And there's also this article in Connecticut Sea Grant's magazine, in which Laufer says he's observed one of the exact phenomena that Lord describes -- female lobsters that have molted their shells while they are still covered with eggs -- and which Laufer also links to alkylphenols.

I don't usually do this kind of thing but I sent Lord an email, pointing most of this out (in a nice way, I hoped). He said he'd look into it, which I hope he does.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Suffolk Exec is Trying to Set Up A Sound-Region Energy Summit for July 24

The idea of holding a closed-door meeting among public officials in the Long Island Sound area to talk about regional energy needs is a good one, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who is planning just such a summit for July 24, is off to a good start, with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal having accepted Levy's invitation.

This press release summarizes who else is invited -- New York's governor and attorney general, for example -- but other than Blumenthal, the list seems light on Connecticut officials. They need to be there too, or else all the good interstate feelings that came out of the anti-Broadwater effort might dissipate. 

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Monday, June 16, 2008

CBC Interview with Hans Laufer: To Help Lobsters, Stop Using So Much Plastic (and Recycle it When You Do)

Ask Hans Laufer, the UConn professor who found a link between chemicals in plastics and lobster shell disease, what can be done to solve the problem and he gives a simple answer: use less plastics, recycle, or stop using them altogether and switch back to glass bottles.

Here he is succinctly explaining the link between plastics and shell rot, in an interview with CBC Radio One (scroll to June 4). (Previous posts are here and here.)

Peg Van Patten, at Sea Grant/UConn, sent me the link. That makes two stories in Canada about an important discovery by a Connecticut scientist concerning a disease affecting lobsters in Long Island Sound and southern New England, and none around here.

We Can All Go to Greenwich's Island Beach Now

For $8 a person you can now hop on the ferry in Greenwich and take it to town-owned Island Beach, whether you live in Greenwich or not.

Until this year, Island Beach was only for residents. But the town opened it up for fear of being hit with the kind of lawsuit that forced it to open Greenwich Point several years ago.

Judging from this story, in the Greenwich Time, it seems as only a couple of old curmudgeons object, including one woman whose opinion was immediately challenged by her husband:

"I think everybody should stay on their beach," resident Miki Dougherty said. "We pay for the repairs of the beach. Everybody in the world wants to go."

While the senior and her husband were waiting for the ferry, the couple got into a disagreement over the change, however.

Bob Dougherty argued that many people in the area cannot afford to live near the water or reside in land-locked communities.

"They don't have a beach in Danbury," Dougherty said.

"That's too bad," his wife replied.

"Where are you going to? Are you going to go down to Florida?" the husband answered.

As a Pound Ridge resident, I’m with him.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Plastics and Lobsters

One quarter or more of all the lobsters caught in southern New England, including eastern Long Island Sound, suffer from lobster shell disease, or shell rot, according to this Sea Grant article by Peg Van Patten. As far as I can tell, the article is the first place that discusses the finding by Hans Laufer, the UConn professor emeritus, that plastic bottles might be implicated in lobster shell disease. Here's an excerpt:

Looking at lobster tissues in the laboratory, Laufer was surprised to find very high levels of alkylphenols, estrogenic chemicals used in the manufacture of plastics and rubber, in lobster tissues. They are antioxidants with phenolic resins, and also result from the breakdown of many manufactured products. Intrigued by this finding, Laufer also examined sediment samples from Martha's Vineyard and Great Bay, New Jersey. The sediments had high levels of these same endocrine disrupting chemicals.

Laufer believes that the alkylphenols were not present because of some greedy, midnight illegal dumper, but that they simply came through water treatment plants unscathed. So, "we," the producers, users, and discarders of plastic and rubber products, and the wastewater treatment methods we use, may be part of the shell disease problem. While Laufer stresses that the work is very preliminary, he believes that there may be a tie between these chemicals and susceptibility to shell disease. ...

I poked around on Sea Grant's website yesterday and this morning and was unable to find a date for the story, although it refers to something that happened in 2006, so it's not that old.

I also don't know (not that I checked too hard) if Laufer's work has been peer-reviewed yet. Nevertheless it seems like a pretty significant finding and I'm surprised the Hartford Courtant, New London Day and Providence Journal haven't picked it up yet.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Horseshoe Crabs

Natalie Angier of the Times went out to Milford Point to write about Project Limulus and the amazing work that Dr. Jennifer Mattei, of Sacred Heart University, is doing with horseshoe crabs. If you read nothing else about the environment or Long Island Sound today, read this.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Broadwater Appeals; New York and Connecticut Apparently Are Discussing Holding an Energy Summit

Broadwater has appealed New York State's rejection, in April, of its proposal to put a liquefied natural gas terminal in Long Island Sound. My guess is that there's very little chance the U.S. Secretary of Commerce will side with Broadwater, but you never know.

Here's Denise Civiletti's story, in the Riverhead News-Review, and here's Judy Benson's story in the New London Day.

I haven't been paying as close attention to my self-assigned blogging responsibilities, for a few reasons (my laptop is down again, which means I have to use my kids' mini-Mac, and I've been named the acting executive director of Westchester Land Trust, where I work, which means I've had to start to learn a new job while still doing m own job), so there are a few things I've missed or haven't paid sufficient attention to (the study that links plastic bottles to shell-rot disease in lobsters is an example of the latter; the report about the economic importance of estuaries that came out a week or so ago and got very little coverage is an example of the former).

In this Newsday story, the reporter refers almost in passing to the possibility of an energy summit on the part of top New York and Connecticut officials, which I think would be a great idea that might even lead to some guidelines about energy development in the two states. 

He also reports that before Eliot Spitzer resigned, New York and Connecticut officials were discussing a deal: New York would reject Broadwater if Connecticut would approve the Islander East pipeline. I had heard talk of that back in early March, I think, but if it's been reported before, I missed it. In any case, it became moot when Spitzer left and Governor Paterson accepted the logic of his Department of State and said no way to Broadwater.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Barred Owl

I was searching online just now for a recording of a barred owl and came upon this amazing YouTube video:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Sick Lobsters: A Message in a Plastic Bottle

You know how when you buy a lobster, sometimes part of the shell is black, as if it has been singed in a fire? That's called shell rot, and it affects a big proportion of the lobster population in the northeast, including in Long Island Sound.

Hans Laufer, a professor at the University of Connecticut, has been studying the problem and thinks he might have found a cause: plastic bottles. There's a good story about it in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. Here's an excerpt:

Hans Laufer, a professor at the University of Connecticut, has spent the last four years investigating the link between the plastic byproducts, called alkyphenols, and shell rot.

In recent years, the disease has become an epidemic in Long Island Sound (located between Connecticut and Long Island, N.Y.) affecting up to 70 per cent of some lobster populations at its peak.

"There seems to be a direct relationship between plastic compound breakdown and shell disease," Laufer said.

The alkyphenols are absorbed into the lobster's bloodstream and inhibit the chemicals that keep the shell hard, which makes them more susceptible to bacteria and other infections that eat away at the shell.

"The lobsters try to molt out of the old shell," Laufer said.

"If it's just mild enough, they recover. If it's serious, of course, it kills them."

Although plastics can eventually disintegrate in water, they aren't biodegradable.

The chemicals remain in the water and are eaten or absorbed by marine species.

Laufer adds that lobster aren't the only creatures harmed by the compounds.

"There is evidence that some of these compounds get into fish, and they will reverse the sex of the fish. You can sometimes find fish populations that are maybe five per cent male," Laufer said. "I think it's kind of scary."

The shell rot problem is not the same as the lobster die off that happened in 1999 and is apparently happening again this year. Since 1999, the industry has fallen on hard times. There were 746 licensed lobstermen in New York then, compared to 442 now; in Connecticut, it’s gone from 440 to 252.


Connecticut Thinks GE's PCB Cleanup Plan for the Housatonic Isn't Good Enough

Thirty-plus years after General Electric stopped putting PCBs -- a probable carcinogen that also probably causing learning disabilities -- into the Housatonic River, Connecticut health officials still have broad "eat none" advisories for women of childbearing years and children who are under the misimpression that eating fish is healthful. 

Thirty years later you still need to be careful if you want to eat a striped bass, which are more abundant now in Long Island Sound and its bigger tributaries than they have been in decades.

And yet GE -- Generous Enormous, as a wry friend in college used to call them -- still isn't making good on its obligation to get PCBs out of the Housatonic, as you can see from this story on Connecticut Public Broadcasting.

The Maritime Aquarium invited GE's environmental lawyer to participate in a forum about the future of Long Island Sound the other day. Gina McCarthy, Connecticut's DEP commissioner, who thinks the PCB plan stinks, was part of the panel too. No indication from this that anyone challenged mentioned the multinational's role in endangering our health.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Connecticut Fails to Continue Lobster V-Notch Program for Long Island Sound

I once asked a Connecticut DEP official if the fish ladders he was working on really worked, which prompted him to sneer sarcastically something like, "No, we're doing it because it doesn't work," which prompted me to remark that it's not exactly unknown in the history of government for money to be poured into projects that don't work.

Which brings me to Connecticut's relatively new v-notch program. As a way to try to increase the breeding stock of lobsters in Long Island Sound, the state pays lobstermen to cut a notch in the tale of females and then throw the females back. If they subsequently catch a female with a notch in her tale, it is illegal to keep it. That gives the females extra time to lay eggs.

I have no idea if the program is effective or not. Presumably the Connecticut State Legislature doesn't really know either. Nevertheless they decided the $1.1 million it costs was too expensive and failed to fund it this year. Here's the Times report.

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One Way to Get Your Ashes Hauled

You know how the part of Long Island Sound that suffers from hypoxia in summer is sometimes called the Dead Zone?

This gives new meaning to the term.
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