Lobster fishing permanently closed on portion of Penobscot River
The Maine Department of Marine Resources has made permanent a Feb. 22 rule closing an area at the Penobscot River to lobster and crab fishing, according to a rule-making adoption notice on the DMR website.
The emergency closure was set to last until May 22, but the new rule, which went into effect May 14, will extend the closure permanently, or until the state determines it is no longer necessary.
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, according to previously published reports. 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.
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."