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Blue Crab Heaven

Global warming already has begun to transform Long Island Sound, according to many marine scientists, creating climate-change winners, like blue crabs, and losers, like lobsters.

At least one researcher believes the warming waters of the Sound could someday become a Connecticut version of Chesapeake Bay, with blue crabs numerous enough to support a whole new fishing industry. At the moment, one of the Sound’s biggest climate-change victims is Homerus americanus, a cold-water-loving beast more commonly known as the American lobster. Long Island Sound is at the southern limit of the lobster’s habitat range, and average water temperatures in the Sound have been rising for decades.

Temperature is the key reason why one of the biggest winners in this climate shift — at least for the moment — is the blue crab. The Sound had been near the northern limit of the crab’s traditional range, but this tasty creature appears to be thriving as the water temperatures off Connecticut’s shoreline continue to rise.

The Bruce Museum Seaside Center will turn its focus on blue crabs with a talk by Tim Visel, coordinator at New Haven’s Sound School. A former lobsterman, Visel will discuss the status of blue crabs in Long Island Sound, exploring the role that the environment, climate, and fishing play in their health and abundance. His talk, beginning at 2:00 pm on August 5th.It is part of the Fred Elser First Sunday Science at the Seaside Center Series, which takes place at the Innis Arden Cottage/ Seaside Center in Greenwich Point Park, Old Greenwich, CT.

“With global warming taking place it’s certainly well on its way,” said Tim Visel.

Visel’s voice rises with excitement as he recounts seeing a crab hatching “off Fisher’s Island that was 7 miles across. … I’d never seen a crab hatch like that.”

“A couple of years ago, they were taking at least 1,000 pounds [of crabs] a day out of the Connecticut River,” he added.

Visel has spent years researching historical fishing and climate records for Long Island Sound. He believes events that occurred more than a century ago offer a window into what may be happening with Connecticut marine life today.

According to those records, beginning in the late 1880s, southern New England experienced several decades of extraordinarily warm weather. Lobster populations plummeted (just as they did a century later). Blue crabs began to multiply, as did a number of other species better suited to warmer waters.

Visel calls this period “The Great Heat.” He said it lasted into the 1930s, when colder temperatures began to return and the lobsters began to recover. He says these “habitat reversals” have taken place repeatedly over time, a view held by most marine scientists.

Visel researches the impact of climate on seafood and has written extensively examining the blue crab life cycle, habitat history and why the species may serve as a climate change indicator. Visel will also discuss a recent surge in abundance of blue crabs along the Connecticut coast, which he says began in 1998 before subsiding over the past three years due to cold winter weather.

“Blue crabs like the warm weather, and starting in 1972 they gradually increased here in Long Island Sound and then surged in 2011 to some 90 to 100 crabs per hour catch rates in the Connecticut River,” says Visel. “This spring the average was about 4 crabs per hour.”

The program is free and open to the public. No beach pass is needed; just let the front gate staff know you are attending the First Sunday Science program.

For more information, contact Bruce Museum Seaside Center and visit brucemuseum.org.

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By: Staff

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