THE WORKING WATERFRONT
by Craig Idlebrook
News that Canadian authorities have charged executives of the largest aquaculture company in the Northeast with illegal pesticide use has sent a shockwave through the waterfront community in both Maine and Canada. The charges, which allege that Cooke Aquaculture used a banned pesticide that caused a wave of lobster deaths in New Brunswick, have raised questions about the future of the coexistence of lobstering and aquaculture in the Northeast.
In early November, Environment Canada charged New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture and three of the company’s executives with 11 counts each of violating the Canada Fisheries Act. The charges come after an investigation of lobster die-offs off the coasts of Grand Manan and Deer Island in 2009 and 2010. Tests on the dead lobsters revealed they had been exposed to cypermethrin, a pesticide used to treat sea lice. Cypermethrin is currently approved for use in the U.S., but banned in Canada. The charges came after Canadian officials raided Cooke offices in Canada.
The scope of the investigation and the severity of the charges are unusual, said Matthew Abbott of Fundy Baykeeper, a Maritime provinces-based environmental watchdog group.
“All of this is pretty much unprecedented,” Abbott said.
Local fishermen had long suspected that Cooke had been using illegal pesticides that were hurting the local lobster population, but it was the two die-offs that caught the attention of authorities, Abbott said. In 2009 and 2010, local lobstermen began to pull up traps with dead lobsters near Cooke sites. One lobsterman reported losing a 1700-pound holding crate of lobsters near a site.
Cooke spokeswoman Nell Halse declined to comment on the charges against the company, citing the active criminal case, but she did say that it involves the company’s Canadian operations exclusively.
“This is not a Maine or U.S. issue,” Halse wrote in an email. “We have no compliance issues in Maine.”
In a statement on the company’s website to employees, Cooke CEO Glenn Cooke said he was “personally devastated” by the charges leveled against the company. He also emphasized that the banned pesticide is used widely for other commercial operations.
“I can tell you that the substance they are talking about is something that is used regularly for agricultural purposes and on golf courses. Salmon farmers in many other countries are authorized to use it. We continue to encourage our governments to approve the treatment and management tools that our fish health and farming teams need to protect the health of our fish,” Cooke said in his statement.
Cypermethrin is one of just a few pesticides approved in the U.S. for aquaculture projects, and it is used to combat sea lice, a chronic pest found in salmon farming. By contrast, terrestrial farmers have dozens of pesticides approved that are used routinely, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. Aquaculture farmers are lumped together with land farmers, Belle said, but they often have to be more exact with their pesticide use, work with fewer chemical tools, and face more scrutiny.
“If you make a mistake and screw it up, the penalties are pretty damn big,” said Belle.
Cooke is the largest aquaculture company in Maine, and is one of the largest waterfront employers in Washington County. Belle said that Cooke’s operations in Maine and the Maritime provinces are separate, and that what was alleged to have happened in New Brunswick could not occur in Maine. Multiple state and federal agencies monitor the water near aquaculture sites in Maine, and not a single sample from those agencies have shown detectable traces of cypermethrin. A lobster die-off from exposure to the pesticide cannot occur in Maine, Belle said.
“It’s inconceivable,” Belle said. “It’s so closely monitored.”
Aquaculture advocates say the U.S. has stricter regulation for aquaculture than the Maritimes. Cooke has much larger operations in New Brunswick than in Maine, and has recently moved forward with plans to expand its operations in Nova Scotia. In a June article of the Gloucester Times, Halse said that Cooke found the business climate for aquaculture more hospitable in the Maritimes than in Maine. The U.S. offered, “limited expansion opportunities under greater scrutiny and cost,” she said in the article.
While there are strong regulations in place to protect aquatic health in Canada, those regulations sometimes aren’t enforced, say some environmentalists. One problem is that Environment Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the EPA, has a dual mandate to promote and regulate aquaculture, said Abbott.
“This is a textbook example of why promotion and regulation doesn’t work [in one agency],” said Abbott.
Aquatic environmental regulations may be stricter in U.S. waters, but U.S. regulators have a more lenient attitude toward chemical use, said Dr. Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute. Cypermethrin is authorized for use by regulators despite being shown to cause stress to lobster at just a fraction of the normal approved strength, said Shaw.
Other studies show that repeated exposure to low doses of cypermethrin can cause as much damage to lobsters as one high-dose exposure.
Shaw has serious doubts that lobstering and aquaculture can co-exist successfully with the regulations currently in place, and she believes that what is alleged to have happened in New Brunswick will occur in Maine. It’s not a question of if, but when, said Shaw.
“This is what we call a signal event,” Shaw said. “I think we’re going to have to make some hard choices.”