Maine’s coastal communities are facing immense pressure from all angles.

The lobstering community is facing an uphill battle with the federal government regarding policy changes to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Working waterfront towns are facing housing crises as a result of ongoing gentrification along the coast. Climate change threatens communities that rely on a healthy ocean to make a living.

To ensure that future generations of Mainers can live and prosper on the water, we must welcome new economic opportunities to our coast.

Maine lobstermen and commercial fishing families have turned to aquaculture to boost revenue and diversify their businesses. According to data from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), roughly 50 commercial lobster license holders also hold aquaculture leases, meaning that one in every six Maine aquaculturists also captains a lobster boat.

Aquaculture businesses help to strengthen our working waterfronts by providing jobs, supporting local businesses and enhancing Maine’s commercial seafood infrastructure. Aquaculture also contributes to Maine’s renowned seafood brand with a total economic impact of $137 million, according to a 2017 report by researchers at the University of Maine.

In 2018, a group identifying itself as Save Maquoit Bay launched a targeted campaign against Maine’s aquaculture sector after Mere Point Oyster Co. applied for a 40-acre lease in Maquoit Bay off Brunswick.

The opposition group rebranded in 2019, changing its name to Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage. This change is consistent with its new strategy of capitalizing on frustrated fishing communities by pitting lobstering against aquaculture. Protect Maine argues that aquaculture is a threat to the Maine lobster fishery by falsely claiming that the DMR grants licenses to 99 percent of applicants and that anyone “can own 1000 acres of the ocean.”

In reality, this 99 percent figure isn’t supported by DMR data and a lease does not constitute “ownership” – it only gives a leaseholder the right to conduct an aquaculture business under strict rules and regulations. Protect Maine is proposing a bill that would restrict Maine aquaculture by reducing acreage limits and requiring applicants to prove that “no practical alternative (site area) exists that would have less of an impact on existing uses.” If passed, this bill would significantly hinder the success of current and future aquaculturists along the coast.

Currently, no other marine resource users in Maine are required to go through a process as publicly transparent and rigorous as Maine aquaculturists. They are the only marine-use group that must comply with standards on noise, light, and the color and height of any floating structure in the water. Further, lease applicants must comply with eight rigorous criteria, sign a contract with the state, comply with an extensive set of regulations, attain other federal and state permits, and, in many cases, go through a public hearing, all prior to operation. Maine’s leasing laws and regulatory system are the product of 40 years of public discussion in the state Legislature, and they are often used as a model by other states and countries because they are rigorous, effective, fair and balanced.

Protect Maine claims they are not against aquaculture entirely, and that they support the “owner-operator model.” For an aquaculture business, just like any other business, to become sustainable, provide adequate wages and generate significant economic activity, it must be able to reach an appropriate scale. There is room for aquaculture to grow without displacing other industries, and that is exactly how the leasing process is designed, as a lease cannot be granted by DMR if it interferes with a “commercially significant” fishery or “public use or enjoyment.”

Protect Maine does not speak for all Maine lobstermen. They do not represent the interests of Maine’s working waterfronts.

Where was Protect Maine when the right whale issue took hold of our communities? Where were they when lobstermen were facing a bait crisis? Their campaign is misleading, divisive and exploitative. By pitting two working waterfront groups against each other they are escalating tensions in Maine’s coastal communities and limiting the choices fishing families have to make a living on the water.

Rather than working toward improving the uncertain future of Maine’s working waterfronts, Protect Maine is attempting to drag our coastal communities into a feud.


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