February 24

Closure to affect hundreds of Maine lobster, crab harvesters

Others wonder how the closure of the Penobscot River area will reflect on the Maine lobster brand.

By Jessica Hall jhall@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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