Citizens speak at DMR hearing on lobster closure

By Dan West | Mar 18, 2014

Bucksport — The Maine Department of Marine Resources is seeking comments on a proposed rule that would make permanent a Feb. 22 rule closing an area at the Penobscot River to lobster and crab fishing.

The emergency closure will last until May 22, while the proposed rule would extend the closure to two years.

The DMR held an information session and public hearing on the proposed rule March 17, at which several fishermen and citizens from the towns surrounding the closed area spoke. That area, which includes about 7 square miles of fishing ground, extends up river from a line starting at the northwestern point of Wilson Point in Castine across to Fort Point Lighthouse on Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs.

Andrew Smith, a toxicologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control, said the lobsters in this area were found to have concentrations of mercury in their meat above a level that is safe for children and pregnant women to ingest — around 200 nanograms per gram. Lobsters caught off Verona Island showed mercury levels around 400 nanograms per gram.

DMR Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson said the department considered simply putting out a consumption safety advisory warning children and pregnant women not to eat lobsters caught in this area, but decided a full closure of the area would better preserve confidence that Maine lobsters were safe.

Smith said lobsters caught in Maine waters are tested for Mercury and show an average of around 50 nanograms per gram of mercury, which is less than most commercial fish. However, he said the closer you get to the mouth of the river the higher the level of mercury in shellfish you find.

The original contamination was found in a court-ordered study of pollution in the Penobscot River caused by the HoltraChem Plant in Orono. That study showed the high levels of mercury in the lobsters and crabs in the closed area. Smith said the same study tested lobsters below the closed areas off Sears Island, Islesboro and Verona Island and found raised levels of mercury, but at a level below the 200 nanograms per gram level considered unsafe.

That testing was done primarily in the summer and early fall, while Mendelson said DMR plans to test lobsters in the closed area and in the waters south of the closed area seasonally. This will show how seasonal changes may effect the contaminated population of lobster. One lobsterman who spoke at the meeting suggested that the lobsters found around Verona Island in the summer leave the river in late fall or early winter and enter Penobscot Bay.

Ron Huber of Friends of Penobscot Bay spoke and questioned how the DMR would handle green crabs and other shellfish species not tested in the original study. Mendelson said the DMR study would focus on lobsters and rock crab.

Lobsterman Mike Dassett said he was part of the original court ordered study helping to catch lobsters for testing from 2007-2012. Dassett said he was the one who brought the study's findings to DMR in the fall of 2013, which precipitated the closure, and commended the department for acting so quickly.

"We gathered a lot of real good information," Dassett said. "Each trap was tracked and the samples were sent to three different labs."

Tony Kulic, of Belfast, also spoke at the meeting and asked whether the state will be pursuing action against the company responsible for the mercury contamination. Smith said state is not a party to the lawsuit that resulted in the original study.

According to court documents, in 2002 Mallinckrodt US LLC was determined to be responsible for the pollution at the contaminated HoltraChem site. It has been ordered to clean up several mercury contaminated landfills on the HoltraChem site, but it has not been determined what it should do about waters around that plant, which are under federal jurisdiction.

Following the 2002 decision, the court ordered the formation of a panel to study mercury contamination in marine life in the waters around the HoltraChem plant. That study was completed in 2013, and a trial will be held May 7 to determine what, if any, remediation should be done on the Penobscot River.

The DMR will move forward by conducting its own study of mercury in lobsters at the mouth of the Penobscot River. Director of Communications at DMR Jeff Nichols said the initial testing will monitor mercury levels in the shellfish and confirm the Penobscot River Mercury Study findings.

Nichols said the DMR will also be purchasing lobsters from adjacent areas, specifically around Sears Island, Islesboro and Castine. Since lobsters move about on the ocean floor, they can cross in and out of a closed area. Nichols said the testing will be done quarterly to "get a better understanding of the changes that can occur over different seasons."

The public can submit comments on the proposed rule to close area at the mouth of the Penobscot River to lobster fishing by email to dmr.rulemaking@maine.gov, by March 28. Comments can also be submitted by mail to 21 State House Station, Augusta, Maine.

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