Plastic Pollution Killing Lobsters, Research Says

Aug 11, 2010
Scientist Hans Laufer holding lobsters. Note the plastic-bound claws. (Photo: Peg Van Patten, University of Connecticut)

Lobsters are well armed to defend themselves. Witness the claws, the shell, the sheer ugliness of the front-end grill.

But pollutants in the waters where lobsters live and feed may be killing the crustaceans in a host of disturbing ways, reports Treehugger.

A new study from the University of Connecticut finds that chemicals leaking from plastics seem to be causing shell disease in the prized creatures. The malady has lead to massive die-offs in New York’s coastal waters since the late 1990s.

After years of lobster study, molecular biologist Hans Laufer says that high levels of chemicals called alkylphenols, which come from plastics and detergents, have contributed to shell disease in the lobsters, causing complications that weaken and often kill them.

Boiling a lobster alive may seem cruel, but poisoning it with chemicals such as BPA (bisphenol A) is hardly better.

Even moderate levels of the suspect chemicals can double the time it takes for the lobster to molt its shell, making it vulnerable to predators and pathogens that cause shell disease, says a story from UCONN.

The affliction causes shell deformations and lesions that eventually bore through the shell to the tissues and membranes underneath.

The disease has led to substantial die-offs in Long Island Sound stunning the lobster industry there. Everything from insecticides to warmer water temperatures were implicated as possible causes in the past.

But Laufer has long suspected plastic of being behind the ailing New York lobsters. The area is a hotspot for alkylphenols. In an August 2008 article in ScienceDaily, the professor was already blaming the chemicals for increasing the lobsters’ susceptibility to shell disease. He said at the time:

"Plastics last a long time, but breakdown products last even longer. Perhaps shell disease is only the tip of the iceberg of a more basic problem of endocrine disrupting chemicals in marine environments."

The lobsters ingest the chemicals through their food: water-filtering animals like clams and mussels are staples in a lobster's diet, according to UCONN Today.

Laufer first encountered alkylphenols in lobsters while investigating a major Long Island die-off in the late 1990s. While looking for evidence of toxins from mosquito poisons in the lobsters, he detected the plastic-related chemicals.

Laufer says that the effects of alkylphenols aren’t well understood, but if they’re bad for lobsters, they might be bad for people, too. He compared the threat to the risk posed by tobacco to human health.

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