STOCKTON SPRINGS — Greg Perkins thinks of the thousands of pounds of lobsters and crabs that he’s caught in the Penobscot River over the past seven years and worries about his family and the consumers he might have unknowingly poisoned with mercury.
“My first thought was, ‘Were those lobsters contaminated?’ ” Perkins said Wednesday, a day after the Maine Department of Marine Resources announced that it will close the mouth of the river to lobstering and crabbing because of mercury contamination. “Was I possibly poisoning my family and the public for 10 years? It’s impossible to think about.”
Perkins said he knew that environmental groups and the state had been doing studies for years, but he didn’t hear until last month that the tests showed unsafe mercury levels in lobsters and crabs.
“It sucks for us, but I don’t want to kill people either,” said Perkins, who fishes the maximum of 800 traps out of Stockton Springs, in the 7-square-mile area that will be closed for at least two years starting Saturday. Perkins fishes as sternman on the boat of Ken ‘Skeet’ Wyman.
A total of about 270 licensed commercial and recreational harvesters work in the area and are potentially affected by the closure, according to the Department of Marine Resources.
Wyman, who sells bait and fishes for lobsters and sand crabs off Stockton Springs, said the closure will affect about 20 percent of his 800 traps. He said crabs are his most lucrative catch, but he would not say how many pounds of lobster and crab he catches each year.
Despite the loss of income he expects from the closure, Wyman said he is pleased that the DMR made the decision.
“I’m relieved because I don’t want to hurt anyone. They should close it. It’s the right thing to do,” said Wyman, who has been a lobsterman for 26 years.
Wyman said he doubts that the rest of the state’s lobster industry will be hurt by the closure. Lobsters are harvested across more than 14,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine.
“This is the area of concern,” he said. “They’ve tested further down (Penobscot Bay) and it’s been fine. I don’t know how people are going to react, but I think there’s been enough research done to focus the closure.
“I pray to God it won’t affect the whole industry and people don’t just read the headlines,” Wyman said.
Maine’s lobster catch was worth about $340 million in 2012. The value of the 2013 catch is not yet available.
IMPACT ON INDUSTRY’S REPUTATION
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, formed last fall to market and promote Maine lobster, downplayed concerns about the closure affecting public perceptions of lobsters caught in Maine waters.
“It’s not a huge concern for us,” said Marianne LaCroix, the organization’s acting director. “Because of the action taken, people will know that the best-quality lobster is what they are getting in the marketplace right now.”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the trade group for lobstermen, said the mercury levels were similar to those found in canned tuna.
“Maine’s lobster industry has a long history of strong stewardship and making short-term sacrifices to ensure the long-term well-being of the industry,” the group said in a prepared statement.
In a news release announcing the closure, the DMR noted that the 7-square-mile section is a very small portion of the lobster harvesting area on the Maine coast. Commissioner Patrick Keliher said consumers can be confident that lobsters are safe to eat.
Michael Fineman, who runs a public relations and crisis management firm in San Francisco, said Maine officials appear to be responding as well and as thoroughly as could be expected.
“The DMR’s information is to the point, timely, demonstrates concern for public safety, communicates ongoing monitoring and testing, cites credible data, shows the need for public trust, and it does not appear at first glance to be dismissive,” he said. “There is a sober balance required in these communications that needs to be struck between dismissing concerns and unnecessarily heightening anxieties, and I believe they’ve done that.”
However, another crisis management expert said the issue will damage the reputation of Maine lobsters as a wholesome product.
“It’s going to hurt the brand,” said Davia Temin, a consultant from New York. “There is no way it’s not going to hurt the brand.”
She said people who eat Maine lobsters regularly don’t know if they came from the area that has been closed. She said many of those people will feel that their trust in state regulators has been violated.
“I think people could be angry,” she said.
FISHERMEN TO TAKE A HIT FOR AWHILE
State officials said the mercury contamination was revealed in a court-ordered study related to a federal lawsuit filed by the Maine People’s Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council against Mallinckrodt Inc. The company is the current owner of a plant that operated from 1967 to 2000 in Orrington, upriver from the area that will be closed to lobster and crab harvesting. Environmentalists have said for years that the plant’s former owner, HoltraChem, dumped mercury into the Penobscot River.
“I hope, if indeed they are found guilty, that they are held accountable,” said Wyman, the fisherman in Stockton Springs.
He said he doubts that the area’s tourism business will be affected because lobster from other parts of the coast will be fine.
“It should only affect the guys fishing. It’s a big hit, but necessary,” Wyman said.
Fishermen said it would be impractical to move lobster and crab traps to different areas. The crabs tend to locate in a condensed area of the river, so it would be pointless to fish for them elsewhere. Plus lobstermen tend to be territorial, and won’t welcome interlopers from the Penobscot area.
“You can’t move into another guy’s area. It’s not really welcomed,” said Perkins, who has set a portion of his traps in the area to be closed.
Perkins questions whether the lobsters and crabs will be safe to eat in two years, and whether potentially contaminated lobsters will migrate to other areas.
“My biggest concern is that lobsters are highly migratory, and the same lobster that will be there this summer will be moving down,” Perkins said. “There’s no way to track the lobster. Crabs move a little, but they aren’t as migratory as lobster.”
An extended closure will hurt not just fishermen, but lobster and crab processors as well, he said.
Laurie Seekins, who owns a crab processing company, Water World II in Bucksport, said she doesn’t think she will be affected by the closure because she gets her crab from towns farther away.
“Maybe demand will go up for good crab and prices will go up,” Seekins said. “Maybe it will help us.”
Staff Writer Tom Bell contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story was updated on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 to correct that Greg Perkins has been fishing for seven years, not 10, and fishes as sternman on a boat owned by Ken Wyman.