AUGUSTA, Maine — People who testified before a legislative committee Thursday about a proposal to ban mosquito pesticides in order to protect the state’s lobster population said that the idea merits scientific research.
Three of the four people who testified on LD 1678, however, did not express support for the bill, which would prohibit the use of two mosquito pesticides, methoprene and resmethrin, in areas that drain into the Gulf of Maine. A state pesticide official and an attorney for a pesticide manufacturer testified against the bill, while a representative of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said it was neutral on the proposal.
The American Mosquito Control Association has spoken out against the bill, but no one from the group testified at Thursday’s hearing.
Mick Devin, a state representative from Newcastle, presented the bill Thursday to the Legislature’s committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The legislator who sponsored the bill, Rep. Walter Kumiega of Deer Isle, serves on the Marine Resources Committee with Devin but was unable to attend the hearing.
Devin was the only person to speak in favor of the bill, which he said would prevent harmful pesticides from adversely affecting Maine’s lobster fishing industry, which in 2012 generated $340 million in gross revenue for the state’s 6,000 or so licensed commercial lobstermen. He said certain pesticides have been banned outside of Maine in order to protect lobster.
“We should not be doing anything that impacts them negatively,” Devin said.
Henry Jennings, director of the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, spoke at length about why the bill should not become law. He said he applauded Kumiega for drawing attention to the topic of how pesticides affect the marine environment. However, he said that the two pesticides are not used in Maine for mosquito control, and there is no conclusive scientific evidence that the chemicals caused a massive lobster die-off in Long Island Sound over a decade ago.
Kumiega had said when he introduced the bill that the 1999 die-off and subsequent Connecticut law that tightened restrictions on use of the pesticides inspired him to propose the ban in Maine.
In the mid-2000s, Long Island Sound lobstermen who blamed pesticides for the die-off in the sound reached multimillion-dollar settlements with three chemical companies who had manufactured pesticides that had been used to counter the spread of West Nile virus in the New York City area. And last year, a Canadian aquaculture firm was ordered to pay several hundred thousand dollars in fines and penalties after it pleaded guilty to using illegal pesticides that were found on lobsters that died in Passamaquoddy Bay, not far from the Maine border.
According to Jennings, the Connecticut law was prompted by a 2011 study that indicated traces of the two pesticides had been found in weakened lobsters in Long Island Sound. Subsequent retesting of the lobsters, however, have indicated that the earlier findings likely were faulty, he said.
“False positives are very common” when testing in complex environments such as marine ecosystems, Jennings said. More conclusive studies suggest the die-off in Long Island Sound was a result of the combined effects of higher water temperature, parasites and diseases rather than from methoprene and resmethrin, which break down in a matter of hours when exposed to sunlight, he added.
Jennings said that Maine may want to use the two pesticides in the future to combat West Nile virus or eastern equine encephalitis, which can be fatal to humans, and that any ban on them could result in the use of pesticides (which he did not identify) that are known to be more harmful to people or the environment.
But the question of how pesticides might affect the marine environment and Maine’s valuable commercial fisheries is worthwhile, Jennings said. That is why state agriculture officials plan to put together a technical risk assessment committee and begin examining marine sediments this summer.
“That’s what we’ve already begun to do,” Jennings said of planning for the effort.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the association supports the state’s efforts to comprehensively research the issue. She said the coastal economy, especially in Down East Maine, would be “devastated” if something happened to trigger a lobster die-off in the Gulf of Maine.
But she added that Maine Lobstermen’s Association believes banning the two pesticides just because they have been banned elsewhere “oversimplifies” the issue and could give Maine lobstermen a false sense of security.
The bill “identifies a serious concern,” she said, but “there still is no evidence pesticides caused the die-off” in Long Island Sound.