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News Feature

Originally published in The Weekly Packet, April 24, 2014
DMR invites public to question, learn about aquaculture laws
Meeting set for April 30, 5:30 p.m., Penobscot School

by Anne Berleant

The number of aquaculture leases approved by the Maine Department of Marine Resources is on the rise, especially for oyster cultivation and for limited purpose aquaculture sites on the Bagaduce River. Not everyone is pleased.

“This is…a group of concerned citizens,” said Tom Stewart of Penobscot, in a February interview. Stewart helped circulate a petition to the DMR calling for no new aquaculture leases on the Bagaduce River and no renewals of existing leases.

“We do so to ensure that the cumulative effects of increased aquaculture activity will not adversely impact the Bagaduce River with regards to: A) Pre-existing fisheries and other commercial operation (including tourism); B) Pre-existing wildlife, flora and habitats, C) Pre-existing recreational use, wildlife viewing, hunting, fishing and navigation,” the petition states.

It continues: “We believe the local towns and citizens who live, work, and recreate on the Bagaduce River should have greater local authority and decision-making power concerning the development, management and protection of this important resource.”

Limited purpose aquaculture leases (LPAs) cover up to 400 square feet of water and may employ three unlicensed assistants. Unlike larger and longer-held leases, they require no public hearing or site review by the DMR. Instead, they rely on the applicant to submit marine data and notify riparian owners with 300 feet.

Statutes governing LPAs are 12 M.R.S.§ 6072-C.

In December, the Penobscot Board of Selectmen also sent a letter similar to the citizen petition to the DMR, at the request of Penobscot citizens.

The DMR Commissioner, Patrick Keliher, responded that the DMR would be holding public, informational meetings on its aquaculture program throughout the state. The April 30 meeting in Penobscot is the first of that series.

“The purpose of the meeting is to provide information and answer questions on the statutes and rules that govern Departmental review and administration of aquaculture leases and licenses, and to offer a forum for the community to share feedback with the Department,” reads the DMR notice.

The Bagaduce River is not the only local waterway faced with oyster farming operations. In 2013, the DMR held a public hearing that lasted over 20 hours across three days on an experimental lease application in Morgan Bay, Surry. Several parties against the lease were granted intervener status, and hired attorneys. The hearing closed in October, and the DMR decision is still pending.

Different leases, different rules

The DMR issues three different aquaculture leases, each designed for a different purpose.

According to the DMR publication “Conducting Aquaculture in Maine,” LPAs are “for people interested in starting with a small project to culture certain types of shellfish.” LPAs are renewable one-year leases and require no public hearing.

An experimental lease covers up to four acres for three years. “If the site proves suitable after the three-year term, they apply for a standard lease,” the publication states. Experimental leases require a public hearing if the DMR receives at least five written comments from the public and a DMR site review.

A standard aquaculture lease lasts 10 years, covers 100 acres and requires public hearings and a DMR site review. “Public process is extensive, but this is the best tool for long-term operations,” reads the DMR publication.

How much is too much?

How many leases in one waterway are too many? Is the DMR privatizing a public resource by allowing oystermen exclusive rights? How will aquaculture operations affect property values and taxation?

These are the questions raised by citizens and selectmen in letters to The Weekly Packet and Castine Patriot and at the Morgan Bay public hearing.

By clustering the Bagaduce River LPA sites together—three are permitted within a 1,000 square foot radius of other existing sites—the oystermen are “staking a claim” on the bay, said Stewart.

“What is the tipping point for a particular body of water?” asked attorney Sally Mills, representing interveners Morgan Bay Neighbors, at the final Surry hearing session in October 2013.

“The stopping point” for aquaculture “is when a lease application doesn’t meet the criteria,” replied Aquaculture Administrator and Hearing Officer Diantha Robinson. “Each lease is analyzed on its own merits.”

The DMR bases its lease decisions on statutory criteria found in 12 M.R.S.§6072, which include whether the operation would “unreasonably” interfere with commercial or recreational vessel navigation or fishing, public use and enjoyment, or shorefront access by riparian property owners. Aesthetic considerations are not a criterion.

“The river has a very long commercial history,” said Tonyia Peasley, who owns Little Island Oyster Company in Brooksville with her husband Frank Peasley, and holds standard and experimental leases on the Bagaduce River. “How can we be sure that’s recognized?”