EDDINGTON – Skin irritations, headaches and other health problems signaled to members of the Penobscot Indian Nation years ago that there was a problem with the Penobscot River. “It didn’t take rocket science to realize that it was from the water,” Chief Barry Dana said Thursday after a press conference that announced the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated fish.
A decade ago, Maine issued the first statewide advisory in the nation about eating mercury-contaminated fish. It shocked many anglers who did not know the state’s pristine-looking waters were contaminated.
Today the advisories remain intact.
Anglers and members from several conservation groups gathered at the Eddington Salmon Club on Thursday to let people know about the dangers and to announce the release of a National Wildlife Federation annual report titled, “Tackling Mercury,” which gives a review of how New England states rank compared to one another.
Maine fish consumption guidelines caution pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant and children under age 8, all within the high-risk group, to limit eating certain fish to once or twice a month.
The report recommends that the high-risk group limit freshwater brook trout and landlocked salmon to one meal a month, and all other freshwater fish should be avoided.
Ocean fish including striped bass, swordfish, shark, tilefish, king mackerel and lobster tomalley, or liver, should be avoided, the report states.
The high-risk group also should limit its intake of canned “white” tuna to one can a week or two cans of “light” tuna for the same period.
Recommendations for everyone else limit fish intake to two meals a month for most fish and four meals a month for brook trout and landlocked salmon.
“Today is kind of a wake-up call,” salmon club President Lou Horvath told the gathering. “I find it totally unacceptable that in the name of progress that we continue to pollute our bodies and our lands. Let’s let future generations know we care and maybe our children can eat clean fish.”
The majority of the mercury that finds its way to Maine is from coal-burning power plants in the Midwest, Matt Prindiville of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said. The federal Environmental Protection Agency does regulate the power plants, but more restrictions on mercury release are needed, he said.
“Mercury is the pollutant that has led Maine and 43 other states to issue mercury warnings,” Prindiville said.
The EPA could take a step in the right direction if it would enforce the laws already in effect, Dana said.
“There is no reason for pollutants to be in our air,” the chief said. “There is no reason for pollutants to be in our water.”
Progress has been made, but not enough has been done, Dana said. He said he remembers when the river was filled with toxic and smelly foam that lined the river’s edge and caused skin irritations and other ailments for his people.
For the last 50 years a warning, spread by word of mouth, has passed among members of the Penobscot Nation cautioning them about eating fish caught in the river and collecting sacred herbs that grow along its banks, Dana said. He said the river’s pollution changed his historic culture.
“It’s ingrained in our culture that we live off the land,” he said. “Once we warmed up to the fact that the river was extremely polluted, we had to make a conscious decision of turning our backs from sustaining our diet from fish.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.