Parasites, pesticides, sick salmon and dead lobsters.
These four things have become an issue in Passamaquoddy Bay, and no one seems to be happy about it.
Not the salmon aquaculture operators, who are using pesticides to combat a damaging outbreak of sea lice at their fish pens in Passamaquoddy Bay and adjacent Cobscook Bay. Not environmentalists, who are concerned about the effect the pesticides might be having on surrounding marine life. And not lobster fishermen, who fear the use of pesticides has contributed to widespread lobster deaths in the past.
Officials in Canada are looking into the use of pesticides in and near Passamaquoddy Bay as part of separate investigations into the deaths of lobsters off Grand Manan Island in late 2009 and off Deer Island in early 2010. Both islands are located directly across the international border within easy eyesight of Maine.
Lobsters and sea lice, both crustaceans, are highly vulnerable to pesticides that salmon farm operators have been using and then disposing of in coastal waters, according to officials.
As part of the investigation, Environment Canada executed a search warrant in November at eight facilities in New Brunswick owned and operated by Cooke Aquaculture, a salmon aquaculture firm that also operates salmon farms in Maine. Cooke officials have said they are cooperating with the ongoing investigations.
According to media reports, cypermethrin, a pesticide that is licensed for use in Maine but banned in Canada, was detected on the dead lobsters found off the two Canadian islands.
In a Dec. 29 e-mail, Henry Lau, a spokesman for Environment Canada, declined to specifically verify whether cypermethrin was detected on the dead lobsters found a few miles away from Maine’s border. He wrote that the Canadian federal agency is investigating the lobster deaths under the authority of Canada’s Fisheries Act, which bans fish-harming substances from being deposited into fish-bearing waters.
“Cypermethrin is considered to be harmful to crustaceans including lobster and shrimp,” Lau wrote.
There have been no reports of dead lobsters or of other immediate ill effects in Maine from the use of pesticides in the two bays, but state and lobster industry officials in Maine are keeping tabs on the Environment Canada investigations and on the use of pesticides on both sides of the border to make sure Maine’s lobster indus-try, the largest commercial fishery in the state, and Maine’s marine environment are not harmed.
In 2009, the total statewide landings of lobster in Maine had an estimated cumulative value of $228 million, according to official Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics. Farmed salmon, the second most lucrative fishery in Maine, brought in $38.7 million in direct revenue to the state’s economy the same year. Official estimated financial values for the two fisheries in 2010 are not yet available.
Lobster and pesticides
The presence of pesticides in waters off the East Coast has been a concern for lobster fishermen since at least 1999, when the Long Island Sound lobster population plummeted after anti-mosquito pesticides were sprayed in the New York City area to fight the spread of West Nile virus. Long Island Sound fishermen later sued the pesticide manufacturers and then settled out of court for more than $16 million.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said recently that lobstermen have good reason to be wary of pesticide use in or near coastal waters. If not used properly, she said, “a pesticide for salmon lice would be extremely dangerous to lobsters.”
McCarron said, however, that many aquaculture farmers in Maine have close connections to the lobster industry and take pains to avoid harming the marine environment. Still, the use of pesticides in salmon aquaculture operations needs to be very precise and tightly controlled, she said.
“It’s a fine line to make sure you use the proper amount,” McCarron said. “We have to find the right balance of sharing the ocean so industries can coexist.”
Jon Lewis, aquaculture environmental coordinator for DMR, said recently that besides monitoring the use of cypermethrin in state waters, Maine officials also have noted that a pesticide called AlphaMax, which contains the chemical deltamethrin, recently was used for the first time at salmon farms on the Canadian side of Pas-samaquoddy Bay. AlphaMax has not been licensed for use in Maine because no one has sought state approval to do so, he said.
But that has not prevented DMR officials from consulting with their Canadian counterparts about the toxicity and use of AlphaMax, Lewis said. DMR has not performed any studies or testing of deltamethrin on its own, he said.
According to Lewis, Canadian officials have told DMR that AlphaMax weakens and disperses in the water so that, 15 minutes after it has been released, it cannot be detected within 100 meters of the pens where it was used. With those results in mind, he added, testing for AlphaMax miles away on the American side of Passama-quoddy Bay would not appear to be a worthwhile use of DMR resources.
But Lewis said he understands why lobstermen might take an interest in the presence of pesticides in the ocean and in the dead-lobster investigations in New Brunswick.
“I don’t blame the lobstermen for being concerned,” Lewis said. “Obviously, it targets crustaceans.”
Blacks Harbour, N.B.-based Cooke Aquaculture, which rotates its Maine operations among two dozen salmon aquaculture sites in Hancock and Washington counties, this past summer used cypermethrin in Cobscook Bay and in the Maine side of Western Passage between Eastport and Deer Island. In New Brunswick, it recently started using AlphaMax.
The largest aquaculture firm operating in Maine, Cooke hopes the chemicals can help rid their farmed salmon of sea lice, parasites that attach themselves to the fish. Sea lice weaken the fish and expose them to infection and disease, according to officials.
Nell Halse, vice president of communications for Cooke, recently said the firm and other salmon farmers have been trying to increase the number of pesticides at their disposal because sea lice seem to be developing resistance to pesticides salmon farmers have been using.
“There is no one magic bullet,” Halse said. “You really need a whole suite of these things.”
Slice, a type of salmon feed that contains emamectin benzoate, has become less effective treating sea lice in recent years, the Cooke official said. Salmon farmers also have used hydrogen peroxide but that chemical tends to be less effective at the warmer temperatures that have been more prevalent in the bays in recent years, she said.
Slice and hydrogen peroxide are not the only pesticides that appear to be becoming ineffective in killing the parasites, however. According to reports issued in recent years by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and by Irish Marine Institute, cypermethrin also has been losing its effectiveness in killing off sea lice from salmon aquaculture facilities in Europe.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of Maine Aquaculture Association, said recently that higher-than-average water temperatures in Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays seem to be contributing to the local sea lice infestation. Cold winters tend to substantially kill off sea lice, he said, but last winter that didn’t happen.
“We had a very mild winter last year, so we didn’t get the winter kill that we normally get,” Belle said.
According to Halse, this led to significant salmon losses at aquaculture sites in Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays this past summer.
“It’s been a difficult year for us,” Halse said. “We were fighting this battle with sea lice all summer long.”
Cooke has more than a dozen salmon aquaculture lease sites in Maine in Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays, according to DMR data, but Halse said the company leaves some sites fallow each year. This past year, Cooke used the brand-name pesticide Excis, which contains cypermethrin, at 59 of the 76 cages it had at its five operating Maine salmon sites in Cobscook Bay and Western Passage, Halse said. Each site received only one Excis application during the treatment period between May and July, she said.
Halse said Cooke recently has been using a new pesticide treatment method that requires smaller quantities of chemicals and makes it easier for aquaculture operators to control conditions during treatments.
A common older method involved covering the sides and bottom of salmon pens with tarps and then applying chemicals directly to fish in the pen. With this method, surrounding sea water still could get into the pen during treatment, which dilutes the chemical and requires more of the pesticide to be applied to complete the ap-plication, according to Halse.
But now many fish farmers prefer to use well-boats, which are floating containers that are maneuvered next to the pens during pesticide treatments. With the well-boat method, fish are pumped out of the pen into the well-boat, where they are bathed in the pesticide. This self-contained method does not allow surrounding seawater to seep in, Halse said. This allows aquaculture operators to use far less pesticide than the older tarp-wrap method, she said.Halse said Cooke plans to use the well-boat application method as much as possible, but only in areas where it is needed. She said sea lice have not been a problem at other sites in Maine outside of Cobscook and Passamaquoddy bays, and so Cooke has no plans to use pesticides at its other salmon farm locations in the state. Nor does it plan to use or seek approval for using AlphaMax in Maine, she said.
“We were consistently operating all summer,” Halse said of the well-boat treatments. “We’re going to invest heavily in that.”
But the use of well-boats does not prevent the pesticides from getting into the water. Though the chemicals are kept separate from the surrounding water during such treatments, the solution is dumped into the bay next to the pens after the treated salmon have been removed.
According to Belle, however, the chemicals bond quickly with organic compounds in the water, which greatly reduces their toxicity. So rapid is this process, he said, that the chemicals cannot be detected on the ocean bottom beneath the pens or otherwise outside of the immediate aquaculture lease area.
“This stuff degenerates so quickly in the ecosystem,” he said.
For that reason, Belle said, he doesn’t see how the cypermethrin found on the dead lobsters in New Brunswick could have originated miles away in American waters.
As for the option of disposing of the chemical solutions on shore, Matthew Young of Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Land and Water Quality, said recently that there is no officially permitted method for doing so. Cypermethrin, which also is used in traditional terrestrial farming, is applied in “min-ute” amounts in aquaculture, he said, but both the pens and well-boats are relatively large, which would make land disposal of the pesticide solution problematic.
“It would be a massive volume of salt water,” Young said.
Aquaculture operators are required to take water samples from the treatment area and to submit reports of their findings to DEP, according to Young. DEP officials keep track of the samples to make sure the pesticides are used within required limits.
“The well-boat is by far the better option,” Young said. “You can do the exact treatment [amount] that you want.”
But the use of well-boats offers little consolation to environmentalists who say that dumping toxic chemicals into the ocean, even in small quantities, is a bad idea.
Matthew Abbott, coordinator for the environmental group Fundy Baykeeper in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, said recently that the group is opposed to the use of any amounts of pesticides in marine environments.
“We consider it toxic waste,” Abbott said of well-boat pesticide solutions. “We know that this stuff is dangerous.”
Not only can pesticides affect sea lice and lobster, he said, but they can harm plankton such as copepods and larval lobsters that float higher up in the water column.
“We’re really concerned about the effect on other crustaceans,” Abbott said. “Those crustaceans form the basis of the food chain for everything up to whales.”
Regardless of the use of pesticides, Abbott said, the practice of concentrating high numbers of salmon in a cramped area is not ideal. Sea lice occur naturally in the environment, he said, and can thrive when exposed to high concentrations of captive fish.
“The last couple of years have seen a significant outbreak of sea lice,” Abbott said. “[Pen aquaculture] creates a breeding ground for the sea lice.”
Dr. Susan Shaw, president of Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, said recently that the use of pesticides in aquaculture, particularly cypermethrin and deltamethrin, is a “huge cause of concern.” Both chemicals cause animals to go into convulsions and are “extremely toxic” to crustaceans, she said.
The chemicals also have the potential to build up in the environment after repeated treatments. The cumulative effect of releasing different chemicals into the environment is unknown, she said.
“I think the use of AlphaMax will be just as problematic as the use of cypermethrin,” Shaw said. “It’s kind of like dynamite to put that in the marine water.”
Shaw said that even though it is unlikely that the cypermethrin found on the dead lobsters off Deer Island drifted into Canadian waters from Maine, lobster deaths from pesticides still are a significant concern. It can be difficult to predict which way the pesticide solution will drift after being dumped in the water and to predict what kind of animals will find themselves in the plume, she said.
“I don’t think the lobsters know what the schedule is for these immersion baths,” Shaw said. “There’s no perfection to that. There’s still all kinds of variability that comes into play here.”
For Shaw, the ultimate answer is to not farm salmon in the ocean. She said it consumes or compromises too many resources — not just with pesticide exposure in the environment, but also with the large quantities of smaller fish that must be caught and used as salmon food.
“This is unsustainable,” Shaw said. “If you have to have this [pesticide] cocktail to keep these fish from being eaten up by lice, how far are you going to take this? The real answer is not to be growing salmon in marine waters.”
Halse said the necessary safeguards already are in place to help make sure that salmon aquaculture is sustainable and compatible with the surrounding environment. She said restrictions in Canada about how and when AlphaMax can be used are so strict that the pesticide is “virtually unusable.” Cooke participates in research of the pesticides they use to help make sure they are used safely, she said, and comply with a “huge number of conditions” imposed by regulators in each country.
Halse said Cooke would like to avoid having to find new pesticides for sea lice and so is looking into alternatives to combat the parasite. In Norway, she said, salmon farmers have been putting a type of smaller fish known as a wrasse, which eat the lice off the salmon, into the pens with the bigger fish. Wrasse are not native to North America and so cannot be used in salmon farms here, she said, but Cooke officials are looking for a native species of fish that can be used to do the same thing, which would greatly reduce or eliminate the need for pesticides.
In the meantime, Cooke and other Canadian salmon farmers are cooperating fully with Environment Canada in the lobster death investigations, according to Halse.
“It is in our interest to have that [issue] resolved,” she said.
The combination of the sea lice outbreak, the pesticide use and the lobster deaths has led to an “unfortunate” atmosphere of distrust between salmon farmers, lobster fishermen and environmentalists, Halse said. She described the controversy as partially “artificial.”
She said that lobstering is important to the communities where Cooke operates and that both industries have grown side-by-side in recent years. Cooke wants to make sure that it can get along with and continue to grow with its neighbors, she said.
“It’s really important that they both coexist and remain healthy,” Halse said.