Updated on August 28, 2014
Last month, the Maine Department of Marine Resources reported that lobsters in the mouth of the Penobscot River contain elevated mercury levels that could threaten human health. Most lobsters have moderate mercury levels, but scientists found that lobsters in the Penobscot River had mercury levels similar to levels found in canned albacore tuna- a species for which there is a mercury consumption warning. Because of this they have closed the area to lobster and crab fishing for two years.
Why do lobsters in this area have higher than normal mercury levels? – Likely because the HoltraChem plant [now owned by Mallinckrodt] dumped their mercury waste into this river from 1967-2000. Animals absorb mercury from the water and it gets concentrated up the food web.
The Maine’s People Alliance and the National Resource Defense Council are currently suing HoltraChem/Mallinckrodt to ensure they are held responsible for the pollution of this river. They want the company to pay for the cleanup. This seems like the least they should have to do.
People eating lobsters and crabs from this contaminated area may have unknowingly been getting high doses of mercury for years. The area closed to lobster and crab fishing is only a small part of the total lobster and crab fishing grounds, but it will affect around 270 fishermen. We must hold companies that pollute our waters accountable for the damage they cause.
Scientists say that lobsters and crabs outside the closed area remain safe to eat, and they continue to monitor the situation. Crabs don’t move much, but lobsters migrate some. However, a recent study concluded that because lobsters contain moderate mercury levels, kids should limit their lobster consumption. And everyone should avoid eating too many moderate-to-high-mercury species. See our recent post, “Eating Seafood: Health Boon or Health Threat ”.
For more on mercury visit our mercury in seafood web page and our partner’s website, the Gelfond Fund for Mercury Research and Outreach at Stony Brook University.
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.