BRUNSWICK — The Department of Marine Resources has given initial approval to the controversial expansion of Maquoit Bay’s Mere Point Oyster Co. almost a year after the process began.

Draft decisions are issued to the lease applicants and intervenors. Both parties have until Nov. 4 to file responses, exceptions and requests to correct any “misstatements of fact,” according to a copy of the draft.

Mere Point Oyster Co. oysters. Hannah LaClaire/The Times Record

A hearing on Mere Point Oyster Co.’s proposed 10-year, 40-acre lease started in November and wrapped up in mid-January. Waterfront property owners and lobster fishermen spoke out against what they saw as conflicting uses of the bay and the potential infringement on valuable lobstering grounds.

The new lease would increase the company’s operating space by nearly 160 times, from roughly ¼-acre of Limited Purpose Aquaculture sites to about 40 acres of professional oyster harvesting, with 12 acres designated as navigable corridors. The company’s annual harvest would increase from 60,000 last year to 1.5 million in the next three years, with as many as 5 million oysters in the water at a given time.

Two groups opposed to the expansion were granted limited intervenor status: One is a group of about 19 commercial lobster fishermen, and the other a group of Brunswick residents, largely from Mere Point, known as both the Maquoit Bay Preservation Group and the Concerned Citizens of Maquoit Bay.

During the hearings, many witnesses expressed concern for lobstermen who previously testified that the lease would infringe upon valuable fishing grounds and result in a loss of revenue, though the department found that lobster sightings were rare during the site scoping session.

The department had 120 days to make a ruling, which would have been May 15, but according to Nichols, it was a “more complicated lease application than normal.”

Now, 282 days from the last hearing, Mere Point Oyster Co. and its opponents finally have an end date in sight.

The draft decision dismisses many of the concerns about the lease application, including that it would interfere with lobstering grounds, negatively impact eelgrass beds, prevent navigation and recreation and result in too much noise. They also found no conflict of interest with co-owner Dan Devereaux, who is harbormaster and a former marine resources officer, because other town officials reviewed the material.

Devereaux and co-owner Doug Niven said in a prepared statement that they were pleased with the decision.

“(Mere Point Oyster Company) worked hard to provide the best science and most objective data in designing its proposed aquaculture lease site in Maquoit Bay,” they wrote. “From the outset, our mission has been to sustainably grow oysters and other shellfish in a way that ecologically benefits Maquoit Bay while providing good-paying, rewarding waterfront jobs for our families and young Mainers. As we live and work on the Bay, we will continue to be a good neighbor to everyone who uses the Bay with us.”

Since the decision is only a draft, they said, the company will provide specific comments to the Department of Marine Resources, and “will wait until the issuance of the final lease decision before providing any additional comments to the public.”

Crystal Canney, spokesperson for the concerned citizens group, said in a statement, “It is our understanding that the commissioner will be considering the draft along with the written responses before making a final ruling. We want to be fair to the commissioner and allow him the chance to respond to the entire submission before we comment in any way.”

Niven said in an interview Thursday that he hopes to have a decision by the end of November, though he has not received a timeline. Ideally, he said, the company would be able to move its oysters to the new lease site before the bay ices up to give them more room to grow. He plans to sink the cages for winter around Thanksgiving.

Most likely, though, if everything is approved, it will likely be spring when they are able to move gear and oysters over, he said, adding that it was “kind of a bummer.”

The decision delay did not affect oyster harvesting this season, he said, because it takes at least two years for oysters to grow to their optimal size. So far, Niven said, he anticipates the harvest for this year will be at least three times greater than last year.

However, the delay has set the company back a year. Niven and Devereaux held off on investing in more equipment and ordering more oyster seed. Devereaux said in an earlier interview that they were “bursting at the seams” and had to take out about six more Limited Purpose Aquaculture Sites this summer in order to accommodate the growing oysters.

They also anticipated needing more staff and hired 11 full-time summer employees, mostly college students, an increase from four the summer before. In March, they hired an operations manager, anticipating the lease would have been approved by then.
“It was a risk we took, and we kept our commitment to her,” Niven said.

Mere Point Oyster Co. “got hit with a double blow” with the red tide closures this summer, leaving their business closed for nearly five weeks.

Red tide causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, which is not harmful to shellfish, but can be dangerous, even fatal, to humans.

Leaseholders can conduct their own weekly testing at their own expense, but those with LPAs don’t have that option. Had their lease been approved, Niven said, they may not have lost those weeks.

Still, Niven and Devereaux are optimistic for the future of Mere Point Oyster Co., and for aquaculture as a whole.

“We like what we do and we believe in it, so we’re going to try to stick around,” Devereaux said.

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