BUCKSPORT, Maine — Lobstermen, concerned citizens and environmental activists all spoke up at a public hearing Monday night on whether to permanently close mercury-contaminated fishing grounds at the mouth of the Penobscot River.
Many in the crowd at the Bucksport Middle School Performing Arts Center shared their thoughts, questions, and in some cases, outrage with officials from the Department of Marine Resources and Maine State Toxicologist Dr. Andrew Smith.
But no one spoke against the department’s proposal to make the Feb. 22 emergency closure permanent. State officials made that decision to close the 7-square-mile area in upper Penobscot Bay after receiving documents last fall from a court case about the now-closed HoltraChem factory in Orrington, which produced 23,000 pounds of toxic mercury waste each year between 1967 and 1982.
The closed area includes the mouth of the river above a line that starts at the Fort Point Lighthouse on Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs and travels southeasterly to Wilson Point in Castine.
“I commend the DMR for saying, ‘Look, we have an issue. We have to address it,’” Mike Dassett, a lobsterman from Belfast, said at the hearing. “It might be a bumpy road in the beginning, but it’ll be worth it in the end.”
Dassett said he had used his boat to bring scientists from the Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel, ordered by the U.S. District Court in Bangor, to sites around the upper bay where they sampled lobsters, though not the rock crabs that fishermen say are the more productive fishery in the closed area. The scientists involved in that study found that levels of mercury in muscle tissue of lobsters caught in the now-closed area were similar to the amount of mercury found in canned white tuna.
Smith said after the hearing that lobsters caught in this section of the upper bay averaged between 400 and 500 nanograms of mercury per gram. In comparison, white canned tuna contains an average of 340 nanograms of mercury per gram.
Although he acknowledged that lobsters crawl freely around the bottom of the ocean and do not stay confined to the upper bay, samples taken from the closed area show immediate reductions in the amount of mercury in their muscle tissue. He said that he would be concerned about a person eating a lot of lobster caught in the upper bay, not about people eating lobster caught all over the Maine coast.
“Are we concerned about a single lobster meal? The answer is no,” Smith said. “It’s the average exposure we’re concerned with. Not the individual meal.”
Mercury bioaccumulates in the food chain, meaning that predatory fish and mammals will have greater levels of the toxic substance than the amount found in the water or in plants. Smith said that it is located everywhere in the world “because we’ve been burning coal forever,” and it is a global issue in fish.
David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, was at the hearing but had little to say afterwards. Officials involved in the $340 million-a-year industry have been careful to underscore the fact that the closed area represents a tiny fraction of the 14,000 square miles that are fished in the Gulf of Maine. When the emergency closure was announced, fishermen said that just seven or eight lobsterboats were based in Stockton Springs and a handful fished from Verona Island.
“No one testified against it. No one testified for it,” Cousens said of the proposed permanent rule to close the upper bay fishing grounds.
Smith said that the state will sample lobsters in the upper bay throughout all four seasons. The Penobscot River Mercury Study Panel took its sample lobsters between late August and October.
“We want to confirm the data before us. This is not the usual way we get data, but it looks high quality,” he said, adding that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection tests for mercury all along the coast every five years. Those tests have not revealed higher levels of the toxic substance in the upper bay.
One lobsterman asked Monday night if he would be able to take lobsters and crabs caught outside the closed area and store them in crates within the area, after Smith said that the water itself had low levels of mercury. When state officials told him that they were looking into that, a man yelled out from the audience that “you just said the water’s fine!”
Bill Kirby, who runs Kirby’s Lobster Shack in Belfast, asked why state officials were going to automatically close the area to crab fishing, even though mercury levels in crabs had not been specifically tested during the study panel’s research. Fishermen have said that while the area was not very productive for lobster, it is for crabs.
“You’re going to assume they’re the same, without doing any testing?” he asked.
“In general, the levels we saw were similar to the lobster,” Smith said.
One man’s comment was deemed to be off-topic by the Department of Marine Resources, yet still provoked some applause from the audience.
“Somebody put this crap in the water,” Tony Kulick of Belfast said of the mercury contamination. “And these [fishermen] are going to be paying for it.”
The deadline for comments about the proposed permanent closure is Friday, March 28. Comments should be sent to the Department of Marine Resources, attn. Kevin Rousseau, 21 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333-0021, or by email to email@example.com.
For more information, call 624-6550 or visit www.maine.gov/dmr/rulemaking.