ELLSWORTH — Who has priority over the waters of Frenchman Bay — the public, lobstermen or aquaculture concerns? While the 120-acre salmon farm proposed by Norwegian-backed American Aquafarms has roused opposition, a separate proposed 48-acre lease site to grow mussel spat in the bay’s eastern region — aptly named Eastern Bay — is raising similar objections.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) held a public hearing on the proposal on March 28 and 29 both online and at Bar Harbor Town Hall.
Opponents say that if approved, the Acadia Aqua Farms proposal will unreasonably affect navigation, produce unreasonable noise and unreasonably affect existing flora and fauna, including a long occupied and beloved eagle’s nest on Leland Point. Acadia Aqua Farms holds that, as proposed, the project meets DMR requirements for aquaculture leases and would not cause unreasonable effects.
The word “unreasonable” is important because DMR criteria for granting aquaculture leases, codified in state law, is that the lease will not unreasonably interfere with ingress and egress of riparian owners, navigation, fishing or other uses, significant wildlife and marine habitats or public use or enjoyment within 1,000 feet of a public or conserved beach, park or docking facility. A project also must not result in unreasonable impact from noise or light.
The lease site would create a navigation channel where boats once navigated through an open bay, and lobstermen fear entanglements with aquaculture gear near the site.
“There’s no way to go through it, you have to go around it,” lobsterman William Haass said. “We’re taking a huge gamble with these aqua farms, fish pens and mussel rafts, and it’s jeopardizing our livelihood … You might as well put up a 50-foot wall.”
Kathleen Rybarz, who lives directly across from Hadley Point, said not all of the local boaters would safely be able to travel that new navigation channel.
“I can’t follow the navigation line because I don’t have an engine,” Rybarz testified. “The operation would extinguish the boating public’s rights on the Eastern Bay for safe passage and hurt navigation.”
Scientists at MDI Biological Laboratory, which sits less than 600 feet from the proposed site, testified that the equipment noise and vibration will jeopardize ongoing research.
“It’s not that we have strong objections to the de Koning family or what they’re doing,” Jeri Bowers, the lab’s director of development and public affairs, said after the hearing. “There’s just not enough information here to make a clear determination of what the potential impact could be on our research. We do know, based on what information is there, there is the potential for this to be very damaging to the work.”
The de Koning family has been farming mussels locally since 2005, holding four leases covering 158 acres in Frenchman Bay and a fifth in Penobscot Bay in Deer Isle. It’s a family business that employs 50 people for operations on the water and in their Acadia Aqua Farms facility in Trenton. But now green crabs, copepods, lobsters and other predators drawn by warming waters are consuming the mussels before they can grow to harvest.
“From the moment [the seeds] get spawned, something is eating them at every stage of development,” Alex de Koning testified.
To keep the operation viable in the future, the de Konings propose a 20-year standard lease on a new site, southwest of Googins Ledge. The operation would raise the spat over six months to a size too large for predators using a pipe-and-predator-net system. Then, the baby mussels will be “planted” in the company’s existing bottom-culture sites. The operation requires over $1 million in investment by Acadia Aqua Farms and will raise up to 1,000 tons of blue mussel seeds.
“This is purely a mitigation of warming waters and green grab,” Alex de Koning said. “We do not intend to increase mussel production.”
The application also includes an equal tonnage of soft-shell clams, hard-shell clams and scallops, although the de Konings said they will start only with mussels.
The operation would use a hydraulic harvester moored on a raft onsite for three weeks a year — unless the de Konings also use it on their adult mussels, which would increase its use to three times per week. The spat would be tended from daily to one time per week. Pressure washers may be used one to four times per year and also graders, depending on the amount of biofouling that takes place, according to Alex de Koning’s testimony. An Army Corps of Engineers permit is required because of the equipment, DMR Aquaculture Hearing Officer Amanda Ellis noted.
The equipment noise is of high concern to MDIBL because of the unknowns. How noisy will the equipment be, especially when operated on open waters? What level of vibrations will occur underwater? How can the noise be measured before the operation is underway?
After the hearing, Fiona de Koning said the proposal “mitigates to the best of our abilities” noise and navigation concerns, while following the DMR lease criteria. Acadia Aqua Farms contacted local lobstermen before an initial February 2020 public meeting and heard nothing back. And the MDI Biological Laboratory, she said, “sort of expect us to fit in all around them. I reached out to them, and it’s like going in front of a jury.”
She pointed out that lobster boats are continually trawling the area.
“We’ve really done an awful lot to quiet it down,” she said of the proposal. “You’re telling me lobster boats don’t make noise? They’re all over the bay.”
Bowers said the fishing boats are at a low idle and present for a short time.
“It’s more than a lobsterman pulling 10 traps,” she said. “It’s an industrial-scale harvesting operation.”
For lobstermen, Fiona de Koning offered cooperation.
“We will continue to try and make it easier,” she said. “Lobstermen can make the argument that the [pipe] anchors will still get in their way … We can mark them, we can work with [lobstermen] around that. We’ve worked with people on other places.”
The DMR will allow a 30-day period for the applicant and Concerned Citizens of Eastern Bay to submit closing arguments. The final decision, usually issued within 120 days of a public hearing, will likely be pushed back because of the closing argument period and “the volume of evidence and testimony taken in this case,” Resource Management Coordinator Amanda Ellis said.