Biologist Jane Disney testifies about her concerns that a planned oyster farm in the Bagaduce River could make restoration of eelgrass in the area more difficult. PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

Round 1 in Bagaduce oyster farm battle fought last week

PENOBSCOT — The latest battle in a nearly five-year effort by the Taunton Bay Oyster Co. to farm oysters in the Bagaduce River got under way last Wednesday evening at the Penobscot Elementary School.

With approximately 100 people on hand for a Department of Marine Resources hearing on the company’s application for a 10-year, 22.87-acre aquaculture lease, the fight didn’t even make it out of the first round.

The four-hour meeting was the first session, delayed one day by Tuesday’s snow, of a public hearing that DMR knew would likely take more than one go-round to finish. Another session is scheduled for Tuesday evening, Jan. 31, with the school auditorium reserved for Wednesday night, Feb. 1, if needed.

At issue is a plan to grow up to 4 million oysters on three sites near the mouth of Northern Bay in a narrow area of the Bagaduce River more or less between Wardwell Point on the west and Bridges Point on the east.

The oysters would be marketed, according to company President Michael Briggs, as Aunt Mollie’s Oysters. The company already grows about the same number of oysters on five lease sites spread over some 27.84 acres in Taunton Bay.

Taunton Bay Oyster Co. President Michael Briggs points out the location of part of the oyster farm he hopes to start in the Bagaduce River.

The proposed oyster farm met with resistance when Briggs first introduced the idea at a July 2012 pre-application meeting in Penobscot. A DMR scoping session nearly two years ago, in March 2015, drew a large crowd and vocal opposition to Briggs’ proposal.

Undeterred, in October of that year Taunton Bay filed an application for a 23.7-acre lease on three separate tracts. Last December, it cut the requested area to 22.87 acres.

While the area of the requested lease was reduced, opposition to Taunton Bay’s plans appeared not to have diminished at all. Last week, after Briggs formally introduced his plan, at least a dozen Penobscot and Brooksville residents — 22 riparian landowners near the lease site are listed in the application — raised questions about the farm’s impact on the river.

The two opponents to the plan granted formal intervener status in the proceedings by DMR — Caren Plank, owner of Sparks and Aunt Mollie islands, and Adams School science teacher and island caretaker Bill McWeeney — were directed to hold most of their testimony until this week.

Their expert witness, Jane Disney, a scientist at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, was allowed to testify because she could not return for this week’s hearing session. Her principal concern is the impact the oyster farm might have on eelgrass, which she said was “important as habitat” for many marine organisms and can prevent shoreline erosion and help reduce ocean acidification in the coastal zone.

In DMR’s site review report from last summer, department biologist Jon Lewis and two colleagues reported that eelgrass was “rare” on the northernmost of the three proposed lease tracts — off Aunt Mollie Island — and apparently nonexistent on the other two.

“This area is restorable for eelgrass, even if it’s not there,” Disney said. “We have high hopes from the work we’ve done that we can restore it here, but not if you put structures on top of it.”

As the session got under way, Diantha Robinson, the DMR hearing officer running the proceedings, asked the audience members how many of them planned to testify against the application. A dozen or more raised their hands and about half of them had the chance before the hearing adjourned at 10 p.m. until this week. There were still plenty of questions for Briggs.

“What’s in this for the town of Penobscot?” Selectman Paul Bowen asked. “Who’s responsible for cleaning up? Our concern is in the event of a big storm, if things come loose, we don’t want the town to clean up the mess.”

Lewis, the DMR biologist, asked how the company would deal with kelp growing on the lease site that would compete for bottom space with oysters.

Interveners Bill McWeeny, an Adams School science teacher and Brooksville resident, and Caren Plank wait to testify against the Taunton Bay Oyster Co. application for an aquaculture lease near two islands in the Bagaduce River near the mouth of Northern Bay that she owns.

Briggs replied that, with sea urchins absent from the site, kelp was “exploding everywhere” and that workers could “drag it out” without harm.

Lewis said that the “magnitude” of kelp removal was what should be considered.

He assured town Shellfish Committee Chairman Bailey Bowden that he would work with local clammers to identify and avoid digging areas on flats near the northernmost tract close to Aunt Mollie Island.

Audience members questioned Briggs closely about his proposed operations. Among the issues raised were:

  • The potential for heavy boat traffic when crews were setting out juvenile oysters in the spring and bringing in oyster bags in the fall.
  • The risk that traffic might pose to seals that haul out during pupping season on ledges near the southern end of the proposed lease.
  • The disturbance created by noisy boats or mechanical pumps used to wash marine fouling from oyster bags.

Briggs said boat traffic would be minimal except when bringing oyster bags to the lease site in the spring and retrieving it in the fall. He also said he was developing a quieter sprayer to wash down the oyster bags for one day “every two or three weeks.”

He also said he had developed a size grader for oysters that was “very quiet.”

Other issues of concern were the operation’s potential impact on sea and shorebirds, the possibility that it would attract more predatory green crabs to the area — unlikely since the crabs can’t eat oysters of the size that would be placed on the bottom — and the possible impact on “traditional” fisheries such as alewives.

Underlying many of the questions raised so far was the thought expressed by Penobscot resident Maggie Williams about the effects of the proposed farm.

“You’re totally changing my world,” Williams told Briggs.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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