A Canadian firm that is the largest aquaculture operator in the state of Maine and three of its officials have been criminally charged in Canada with using illegal pesticides that killed lobsters within a few miles of Maine’s border.

The majority of charges are punishable by up to a $1 million fine and three years in prison.

Cooke Aquaculture, based in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, has been under investigation by Environment Canada in connection with the lobster deaths off Deer Island and Grand Manan Island, both of which are easily visible from Maine. Dead lobsters were found off Grand Manan in late 2009 and off Deer Island in February 2010. In both cases, the dead and dying lobsters were found to have been exposed to cypermethrin, a pesticide banned in Canada but permitted with prior state approval in Maine.

In Maine, Cooke rotates its operations among two dozen licensed salmon aquaculture sites in Hancock and Washington counties under several subsidiary companies. The firm has used pesticides in Maine and New Brunswick to combat an outbreak of sea lice, parasitic crustaceans that weaken the fish and expose them to infection and disease, according to industry officials.

Robert Robichaud, operations manager in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island for Environment Canada’s environmental enforcement division, said Thursday that the agency filed 11 criminal charges against Cooke Aquaculture on Nov. 1. In addition, CEO Glenn Cooke, Vice President Michael Szemerda, and Randall Griffin, a regional production manager for Cooke subsidiary Kelly Cove Salmon, each have been charged with 11 identical counts of violating Canada’s Fisheries Act.

According to Robichaud, the company and each of the three Cooke officials are accused of releasing cypermethrin into Passamaquoddy Bay and the water off Grand Manan. The first count against each party is punishable by a fine of up to $1 million, Robichaud said, and each subsequent count is punishable by a $1 million fine or 3 years in prison, or both.

All three men are scheduled to appear in New Brunswick provincial court in St. Stephen, on the eastern side of the St. Croix River from Calais, Maine, on Tuesday, Dec. 13, Robichaud said.

There have been no reports of dead or dying lobsters being found in Maine in recent years, but the possibility of Maine lobsters being affected by pesticides has been a concern in the state’s lobstering community for more than a decade.

In 1999, the Long Island Sound lobster population plummeted after anti-mosquito pesticides were sprayed in the New York City area to fight the spread of West Nile virus. Long Island Sound fishermen later sued the pesticide manufacturers and then settled out of court for more than $16 million.

In 2010, the total statewide landings of lobster in Maine had an estimated cumulative value of $313 million, according to official Maine Department of Marine Resources statistics. Farmed salmon, the second most lucrative fishery in Maine, brought in more than $76 million in direct revenue to the state’s economy the same year.

According to Dr. Susan Shaw, director of the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, cypermethrin and similar pesticides are known to be “extremely toxic” to lobsters and other marine species, especially crustaceans.

Shaw said pyrethroid pesticides such as cypermethrin attack the nervous systems of organisms they come into contact with. They have been used on land-based agriculture operations and affected bees, earthworms, birds and even humans.

“It’s a very toxic substance and just does not belong in the marine environment,” Shaw said. “The oceans are under siege from so many problems. This is just unacceptable.”

Nell Halse, Cooke’s vice president for communications, said Thursday that the company has not seen all the charging documents in the case and so cannot comment on the allegations.

Halse did say that Canadian federal law has made it difficult for aquaculture operators to find and use effective pesticide treatments. She said that both in New Brunswick and in Maine, Cooke Aquaculture has co-existed with the lobster industry for 25 years with very few problems.

“This is a very unfortunate week for us,” Halse said. “For the [Cooke] family, it is tough.”

In 2010, Cooke used the brand-name pesticide Excis, which contains cypermethrin, in 59 of the 76 cages it had at its five operating Maine salmon sites in Cobscook Bay and Western Passage, Halse has said. Each site received only one Excis application during the treatment period between May and July 2010, according to Halse.

Halse said Thursday that the only pesticide treatments Cooke has used in New Brunswick and Maine this year are hydrogen peroxide baths in well boats. She said water temperatures at the company’s aquaculture sites this past summer were not as high as they were in 2010 and that Cooke was able to use more effective treatments earlier in the year than in 2010.

Consequently the sea lice outbreak in Cobscook and Passamquoddy bays has not been as severe in 2011 as it was in 2010, she said.

In a statement to Cooke’s 2,000-plus employees posted Thursday on the company website, CEO Glenn Cooke said that the firm has cooperated fully with the investigation and needs time to review the charges.

While saying he is “personally devastated” by the allegations, Cooke wrote that cypermethrin is used “regularly for agricultural purposes and on golf courses” and is approved for salmon aquaculture operations in other countries. He said that Canadian regulators need to allow aquaculture firms to use needed treatment and methods to protect the health of their fish.

“We are committed to health science and safety. We have demonstrated our commitment to sustainable operations,” Cooke wrote. “We have strong beliefs and values and are focused on the well-being of our products, our people, and our communities.”

Matthew Abbott of the New Brunswick environmental watchdog group Fundy Baykeeper in St. Andrew’s said Thursday that the organization is “pleased” Environment Canada is taking action over the use of illegal pesticides in Canadian waters.

“The aquaculture industry needs to be held to account on the way it uses our shared waters,” Abbott said. “I hope this is a wake-up call for the aquaculture industry that they need to revise their practices.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....