ELLSWORTH — A pre-hearing conference for a 48-acre aquaculture lease site in Frenchman Bay is set for Jan. 4.
The meeting will be held remotely to discuss the administrative process for the public hearing on Feb. 9 in Bar Harbor. The Department of Marine Resources recommends that anyone planning to apply for intervenor status attend.
Intervenor status is typically granted to those who have a determinable stake in the outcome of an aquaculture proposal.
In its application, Acadia Aquafarms LLC proposes raising up to 1,000 tons of blue mussels, 10 million sea scallops, 1,000 tons each of softshell and hardshell clams on a lease site southwest of Googins Ledge.
However, co-owner Fiona de Koning and her son, technical manager Alex de Koning, said that they plan only to raise seeding mussels for the five mussel farms they already operate across 158 acres — four in Frenchman Bay and one in the waters off Deer Isle.
“We’ve effectively ruled out doing scallops on this site,” Alex de Koning said. “But if you ever want to do something with anything, you have to put it in [the application] right in the beginning.”
Ditto, the two said, for hard- and softshell clams.
Additionally, Acadia Aquafarms has a second, 68-acre lease application deemed complete by DMR for raising scallops in Frenchman Bay. It is currently awaiting a DMR site visit and report before a public hearing is scheduled.
“That could well be years,” Fiona de Koning said, noting that the current, first lease proposal has been in the works for eight years.
This lease would be for 20 years, and gear would be suspended in the water or on the bottom using a pipe seeding system used in Europe for the past two decades. Fiona de Koning said black pipes would stick out about 6 inches from the water’s surface but gear would be otherwise hidden from view.
The application asks for up to 200 pipe units, but Alex de Koning said they plan to use a lot less.
“The [application] shows roughly four times the amount of units deployed that we’re expecting to use,” he explained, “because it’s a three-year lease app process. You can’t quickly change things. It’s for more than we hope that we need.”
And the 33 feet between pipe systems outlined on the application is less than what is anticipated.
“The actual plan is to put 131 feet between them,” Alex de Koning said. “That is our hope …We ask for the 33 feet [on the application] between them in case they don’t catch as fast as we thought and we have to start filling [the pipes] in [between].”
The pipes are designed to catch and trap tiny wild mussel spat and grow them to about three-quarters of an inch. Then, when they are seeded in Acadia Aquafarms’ existing lease sites, the mussels will be too big for predators, especially green crabs.
“As the waters are warming, the natural seed beds are becoming less predictable and consistent,” Alex de Koning said.
Predator types and populations also change from warming temperatures in Maine waters. Green crabs, Alex de Koning said, “have wreaked havoc on the clams and they’re causing issues here.”
Each mussel spits 20 million eggs out into the water, he explained. “If you have a healthy bed, they all do it at the same time and float around for days” before settling on the bottom — where green crabs and other predators live.
“Everything eats mussel seeds,” Alex de Koning said. “Their niche for survival is to outnumber the predators.”
But now the predators can keep up. The seeding lease would “give them a head start,” he said.
Like so many ocean species, climate change is changing how mussels grow — or do not grow.
“It’s not consistent to say I can run a business with wild seeds,” Alex de Koning said. “It’s too big a gamble.”
Fiona de Koning said they expect some pushback from neighbors, particularly MDI Biological Lab, based on comments at the 2020 scoping session. The nearest MDI Biological Lab building to the lease site is 1,650 feet, she noted.
To attend the Jan. 4 pre-conference meeting, register by noon on Jan. 3 at https://tinyurl.com/3fy66d8z.