On Monday night (March 17, 2014), I attended the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) hearing held in Bucksport regarding the two-year closure to lobster and crab harvesting. The closure is located at the mouth of the Penobscot River and extends approximately 7 square miles. The hearing was an opportunity for the public to voice concerns about or support for the implementation of the closure.
DMR officials summarized the data they had reviewed and their process for making this decision. DMR believes that an area closure is the appropriate measure to protect the public from the levels of mercury recorded in lobster samples collected at the mouth of the river. Sampling in other areas of Penobscot Bay revealed that high mercury levels seemed contained to a small area, and the closure is estimated to affect approximately 10 lobster and crab harvesters. DMR acknowledged that those harvesters will have to shift some of their gear outside of the closed area and hopes that other fishermen will understand and accommodate the shift.
Harvesters raised concerns about how lobsters and crabs take up methylmercury. It’s commonly believed that lobsters take up methylmercury from the sediment and from what they eat (more info on bioaccumulation here), but there is a lack of understanding on how quickly lobsters take it up directly from water.... so the question remains: will harvested lobsters stored in the closed area waters take up mercury from the surrounding water while they are waiting to be sold?
Going forward, the DMR will work with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. These agencies plan to undertake additional data collection year round over the next two years. To ensure their ability to compare data sets, the state agencies will follow the same protocol used to collect data for the independent study carried out in 2006 - 2013.
The mercury is believed to have come from HoltraChem plant in Orrington which is now closed, but operated from 1967-1982. A 2002 court ruling initiated the study on mercury levels in the area. For more background on the issue, please see the following articles from: The Working Waterfront and the PenBay Pilot.