A Maine legislator who hopes to stave off industrial aquaculture and protect lobstermen and women from what he sees as a “large storm” headed for the industry is proposing a bill that small aquaculture farmers say could sink them.

The bill proposed by Rep. Robert Alley, D-Beals, aims to “protect Maine’s ocean waters, support robust regulatory oversight and the long-term health of the aquaculture industry,” according to a concept draft considered by the Committee on Marine Resources Tuesday.  

The bill would revamp the permitting framework for state aquaculture leases, restricting the size of a lease and the number of leases and acres a person can hold, along with requiring leases be turned over to the state when they expire and removing an exemption from the Natural Resources Protection Act for leases over 5 acres. The bill also would prompt a review of the resources available to the state Department of Marine Resources’ aquaculture division.

Alley’s bill also would require that the department “convene stakeholder meetings to develop a strategic aquaculture plan with input from leaders in the aquaculture, lobster, fishing, tourism and recreation industries, as well as experts from the environmental and water quality regulatory community.”

While preventing large-scale aquaculture seems to be a primary goal of the proposed legislation, L.D. 1146, small sea farmers told committee on Tuesday that the changes would hurt them.

“This bill threatens our freedom to operate, adapt and build on everything that I’ve worked for the majority of my life,” said Cameron Barner, co-owner of Love Point Oysters in Harpswell. “This bill will immediately devalue the business I have built, and ultimately prevent me from growing it to a place where it can support my partner and I financially.”

Ally, however, told members of the committee that the bill would create a path forward in a “thoughtful way instead of a hasty economic dash.”

While he said he is not anti-aquaculture, Alley is concerned about the increased scale and number of conflicts between fish farmers and commercial fishermen.  

Roughly 95 percent of aquaculture lease applications are approved, he said, and while the department has limited resources for oversight and monitoring, “we are in effect selling our oceans without the appropriate checks and balances in place.”

That is exactly the concern of Crystal Canney, the executive director of advocacy group Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage and a strong proponent of the bill.

“This bill begins the process of addressing large-scale industrialized aquaculture,” she said in a statement. “The unbridled approach Maine currently operates under will not benefit the lobstermen, small scale aquaculture, or the public, but rather large out-of-state corporations. Maine’s waters are a public trust and should be treated as such – they belong to everyone.”

GIANT PROJECT RAISES FEARS

Much of the bill’s support touched on concerns over a large-scale salmon hatchery and processing facility proposed in Gouldsboro. 

The foreign-backed American Aquafarms proposal includes 30 large salmon pens that would eventually produce about 30,000 metric tons, or 66 million pounds, of fish in Frenchman Bay. The project, if approved, would be on two sites, one encompassing 56 acres and the other taking up 60 acres. 

Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage and other fishery and citizen advocacy groups have vociferously opposed the plans, with the former calling for the Department of Marine Resources to not only reject plans for the 110-acre penned salmon fishery, but also to revise the rules governing how such projects get approved. 

The group argues that without proper regulatory constraints, the state’s fast-growing aquaculture industry could disrupt traditional fishing activity and overtake the coast with large, industrial fish farm operations. 

Alley’s proposed bill would do just that, and many are on board. 

“I support small aquaculturists and the owner-operated model,” Mark Bennett of Sorrento told the committee during Tuesday’s public hearing. “What I don’t support is large industrialized and primarily in-water salmon farming. It’s a polluting business – it takes up too much of the water.” 

Bennett fears that current rules and regulations will continue to attract out-of-state and foreign companies.

“The state has indicated there is no plan for aquaculture growth in the state of Maine except for the free-for-all that currently exists,” he said. “We have a serious problem in Maine, and that’s the lack of planning along Maine’s coast.”

Like Bennett, many supporters stressed that they’re not against the aquaculture industry. In fact, they’re all in favor of the small mom-and-pop operations popping up along the coast, but it’s the threat of large industrialized sites pushing longtime commercial fishermen out of their fishing grounds that has them pumping the brakes.

Fishing and aquaculture can coexist, but it will take strong leadership and citizen involvement so all parties have a voice in the process. Displacing a large group of fishermen to replace with a few aquaculture farmers doesn’t make sense,” said Kelsey Fenwick, a sternman from Port Clyde.

“The future and sustainability of aquaculture in Maine is yet to be seen, but by (the Department of Marine Resources) approving almost all lease applications, it doesn’t seem sustainable,” she said, voicing her support for returning expired leases back to the state. “Industrialized aquaculture is limiting Maine’s most valuable fishery, and taking the ocean out of the public domain.”

Cathryn Bigley, a Freeport resident, told the committee she has learned from personal experience that fighting an aquaculture lease becomes a full-time job, one that requires funding, legal representation, time, research and expert witnesses.

Experts expect more conflicts to crop up as more and bigger lease applications come through, and Bigley worries that they will continue to be approved “without much thought into how all of these fisheries are going to interact.”

A thousand acres is too many, and 20 years is too long, she said.

Currently, a person can lease up to 1,000 acres total through any number of leases, but the bill seeks to prevent anyone from owning more than 10 leases or more than 100 acres in total. 

According to Meredith Mendelson, deputy director of the Department of Marine Resources, this limit would not only impact both Acadia Aquafarms and Cooke Aquaculture, but would effectively “end the existence of finfish aquaculture in Maine” by making it both economically and environmentally infeasible.

Cooke Aquaculture currently holds 24 leases totaling more than 618 acres, though not all of that is in production at any given time.

The farm is a significant source of employment in Washington County, and termination of its operations, which passage of the legislation would require, would have “significant economic impacts,” Mendelson said.

The bill would halve the permitted lease size from 100 acres to 50 acres.

There is currently only one existing lease in excess of 50 acres: a nearly 90-acre lease for bottom culture of blue mussels in Eastern Bay in the town of Lamoine. There is no gear on site, only buoys, and in July, the lease will have been there for 20 years.

SMALL FARMS OPPOSE CHANGE

For leases over five acres, the proposed bill would eliminate an existing exemption from the Natural Resources Protection Act and would remove the site location development laws. Mendelson said in her testimony that Maine’s aquaculture leasing and licensing laws preceded the act, and at the time it was created, the leasing process and regulations for aquaculture were determined to effectively address the same considerations.

Removing the exemption would create a duplicative process at the Department of Environmental Protection, she said, and according to Barner of Love Point Oysters, would add “years of review to an already exhausting (application) process.”

Coupled with banning the transferability of leases, which Barner believes would discourage entrepreneurs from entering the space, “you will have successfully stopped progress in its tracks,” he said.

“Fishermen and sea farmers want the same thing – to be good stewards of our ocean and to support our families,” said Jes Heil, an aquaculturist also representing the Maine Family Seafarm Cooperative. “This bill would cause significant harm to our ability to do either of those things by unnecessarily bogging down an already swamped leasing process.”

Both sides agreed on the need for more resources and funding for the Department of Marine Resources.

Jeff Nichols, department spokesperson, said earlier this year that applications for new aquaculture leases have more than tripled in five years, from 13 in 2015 to 42 in 2020. Active leases take up roughly 1,600 total acres statewide.

Processing that many applications is a challenge, Nichols said, but he noted that staff has so far continued annual inspections without delay. Inspections were performed on 94 leases and 400 limited-purpose aquaculture sites in 2020 and through January 2021.

While inspections have continued without delay, that does not mean the process moves quickly.

The leasing process is lengthy, often taking two to three year years – “an eternity for a small owner-operated business,” Barner said.

According to Mendelson, the proposed changes would tie up the process even further.

An open-ended, statewide conversation on every aspect of aquaculture with no identified framework to enable constructive feedback that could actually be used to implement change, is not feasible or beneficial to anyone involved,” she said in her testimony. “For the department, it would serve only to prevent staff from carrying out their work, further delaying existing applications.”


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