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Mercury pollution contaminates Maine's lucrative lobster industry


(NaturalNews) The Maine Department of Marine Resources has nearly doubled the size of an area closed to lobster and crab fishing after tests revealed high levels of mercury in lobsters caught outside the former closure area.

"We are adding this very small, targeted area to the closure so consumers can continue to be confident in the exceptional quality of Maine lobster," Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said.

In 2015, the Maine fishing industry caught more than $495 million worth of lobster.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that is particularly dangerous to pregnant women and young children. Although it is a naturally occurring element, nearly all mercury found in the environment is there as a result of human industrial activities, primarily the burning of coal. Mercury emitted into the atmosphere eventually settles into the ocean, where it accumulates in the tissues of ocean animals. This process is responsible for the dangerously high levels of mercury in much seafood.

Area contaminated by deliberate dumping

The contamination of the closed area of the Penobscot River Estuary, however, was due to different causes: deliberate dumping of mercury into the Penobscot River between 1967 and 1982. During that time, St. Louis-based company Mallinckrodt operated a chemical factory that deliberately and illegally discharged 1.5 to 2.5 pounds of mercury into the river each day during the '60s and '70s, and lesser amounts after that. The plant was later sold and eventually closed.

In 2014, a federal judge finally ruled in a 17-year lawsuit against the plant for its pollution crimes. The judge ordered Mallinckrodt -- the only former owner still in business -- to pay for a cleanup of the river, with costs estimated at $130 million. It is predicted to be one of Maine's largest and most expensive environmental cleanup efforts.

To guide the cleanup, the judge also ordered a study of mercury levels in the Penobscot River and Estuary. That study detected elevated mercury levels in lobster, leading the state to close that area to fishing.

But the state was concerned that the federal study might have underestimated the scale of mercury contamination, in part because it failed to take into account lobster migratory patterns. The state ordered its own study, which did in fact turn up more mercury contamination and led to the expansion the closure area.

Why doesn't the FDA take safety this seriously?

The new study found that the tails of lobsters collected outside what was formerly the southern boundary of the closure area had mercury levels exceeding the 200 ng/g limit recommended by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

State officials believe their tests were more accurate than the original federal study because they took samples at several different times of year, whereas the federal study only collected samples once.

The lobsters in the new closure area tested at 292.7 ng/g of mercury. Notably, this is still below the 350 ng/g found in canned white (albacore) tuna. This shows the sharp contrast between the preventive approach of the state of Maine and the more permissive, industry-friendly approach of the federal government.

According to Patrice McCarron, president of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, local lobster harvesters have supported the closure as a way to protect the reputation of their product.

"We are just relieved the state is doing all it can to protect the brand," McCarron said. "We depend on that brand. People need to know that Maine lobster is exceptionally safe. Harvesters understand that better than anybody."

The roughly 12.5-square-mile closure affects only a tiny fraction of Maine's 3,500-mile coastline. It is also an area that is typically only fished for about four to six weeks out of the summer.

Sources for this article include:

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