Feds demand more shellfish oversight

Posted May 07, 2009, at 7:53 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Under threat from federal officials to ban the sale of Maine shellfish outside of the state, Maine budget writers are considering adding at least three new positions to the Department of Marine Resources to monitor the state’s shellfish industry.

“We have been told, that in the eyes of the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] we need at least four positions to assure the public’s safety,” said Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, who co-chairs the Marine Resources Committee. “Although we have not gotten assurance, 100 percent assurance, that the FDA will grant us less than four, it is the consensus of the committee we try to get by with three.”

He told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee the state’s shellfish industry would be “devastated” if the FDA banned sale of Maine shellfish in other states.

“Ninety percent of the Maine shellfish harvest is sold out of state,” he said. “That’s a $50 [million] to $60 million a year industry that is affected if we don’t act.”

In letters and e-mails, federal officials contend the state is not meeting the minimum standards to assure protection of the public health.

“This evaluation has determined that the Maine DMR Shellfish Growing Area Classification Program has been unable to adequately evaluate all known pollution sources in a timely fashion to ensure the safe harvest of shellfish for direct market harvest,” a November 2008 FDA evaluation of the Department of Marine Resources stated.

In an e-mail to the Department of Marine Resources in March, FDA regional Shellfish Specialist Peter Koufopoulos wrote that the state needs to follow the testing procedures outlined in the November evaluation in the near term and increase staff as part of the long-term fix.

Damon said in private conversations that FDA officials have made it clear the state needs to act quickly to overcome deficiencies that they have identified.

Rep. Dianne Tilton, R-Harrington, a member of the Marine Resources Committee told the budget writing panel that doing nothing is not an option. She said the additional positions would have an additional direct economic benefit for some coastal communities.

“The other piece of their work is being able to test certain areas of the coast that are now closed to digging,” she said. “And that has a direct impact on a community and the state if those closed flats can be opened again.”

Members of the Appropriations Committee were incredulous that the FDA could mandate the state to hire additional staff without providing at least part of the cost.

“Sadly, the answer to that is yes,” Damon said.

He said while the agency cannot actually require the additional positions, they can ban the sale of Maine shellfish outside of Maine if the state does not add the new staff.

“Obviously, that has serious consequences to the industry,” he said.

Leaders of the Appropriations Committee say the issue will be addressed as part of the budget being crafted.

“There is no doubt we will find the money to put those positions in,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the committee’s co-chairman. “Obviously, we cannot put at risk a $60 million industry. The issue is what fees we will put in place to fund these positions. “

He said there is no “extra” money in the budget and fees will be needed to fund the three scientist positions that will cost $550,000 over the two-year budget.

“We are looking at probably three small fees that will be enough to cover this,” Diamond said.

The panel is seeking more information on the options they have for fees that would generate enough to pay for the positions. They expect a vote to add them to the budget in the next few days.

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