Aquaculture bill draws strong praise and condemnation at Statehouse



AUGUSTA — A bill seemingly proposed in response to a controversial salmon farm project in Frenchman Bay drew robust comment at the Statehouse on April 13. Proponents argued for a second look at the state’s aquaculture permitting process, while aquaculturists said the proposed changes could cripple a growing industry and be especially harmful to smaller businesses. 

The bill, LD 1146, presented by Rep. Robert Alley (D-Beals) and co-sponsored by Rep. Lynne Williams (D-Bar Harbor) seeks to examine the framework for aquaculture leases, look at how other states handle the burgeoning industry and review the state’s regulatory oversight.

“As a fourth-generation lobsterman, I have learned many lessons out on the water,” Alley said. “One of the most important is anticipating an upcoming storm. Unfortunately, I can see a large storm coming for the lobstermen and women of Maine.”

He said he was concerned over navigation around large fish farms and dead lobsters near fish pens.

The bill, which was presented as a concept draft to the Committee on Marine Resources, would require aquaculture leases to revert to the state after their expiration and have all transfers or renewals of leases to demonstrate compliance with current standards. 

One of the more controversial pieces of the bill was removing the Natural Resources Protection Act and site location development exemptions for any leases larger than 5 acres. Another portion of the bill would limit leases to 50 acres and stop someone from holding ownership in more than 10 leases or a total of more than 100 acres.

A final piece of the bill would require the Department of Marine Resources to convene a stakeholder meeting to develop a strategic plan for the future of the industry, “designed to support robust regulatory oversight, protect the marine environment, reduce conflicts with aquaculture sites and public trust users of the marine and coastal waters and improve the lease application and review process and support the long-term health of the aquaculture industry,” the draft read.

“It’s time for the state to take a step back and review its rules and regulations to reduce conflict between lobstermen and women, aquaculturists and other stakeholders,” Alley said. 

The bill drew more than five hours of testimony from people up and down the coast and garnered mixed reviews locally. 

Statewide, it was largely opposed by people who worked in the aquaculture industry, both big and small. They felt the bill would make the already glacial process to start an aquaculture business even slower and said the changes would actually benefit larger aquaculture companies that could weather a long lease process better than mom-and-pop outfits. 

“I oppose LD 1146 because it’s a deceptive proposal whose sole goal is to hurt the aquaculture industry in Maine, whether large or small,” said Alex de Koning, a Bar Harbor resident and the owner of Acadia Aquafarms, a local mussel farm. “It seems looking around that every fishery in Maine is either gone, contracting or facing significant threats to its continued existence. As a state, we need aquaculture if we want to conserve our working waterfront in the age of warming waters.”

The bill would “kill” any hopes of small and medium farmers to get started, “leaving only the large deep-pocketed companies to fill that void,” he said. 

Several people in the aquaculture industry argued to keep the current regulations, saying they were stringent enough, though DMR could use more funding for more staff.

“This bill assumes the leasing system is broken and it’s not,” said Joanna Fogg, who owns Bar Harbor Oyster Co. “There are strict criteria for getting an aquaculture lease and the DMR does an exceptional job managing the sector. What they need is more resources so they can continue to do this as it grows, not an expensive study that would add more to their workload.”

Fogg also worried that the bill would be a segue to adding aesthetics standards into the application process.

Although several aquaculture businesses peacefully coexist with lobstermen in Frenchman Bay, Rep. Williams had concerns about the current DMR process as proposals grow larger and more experimental. 

Although she didn’t reference it by name, Williams brought up the proposed American Aquafarms salmon farm, which is looking for two 60-acre sites in the bay.

She wanted to look into whether additional standards should be added, wondered if 1,000-acre licenses were too large, and wanted to see if DMR had the resources to evaluate and regulate the projects on the horizon.

“I’m suggesting that we, the legislative branch, seriously consider whether the current DMR licensing process is adequate and appropriate for the nature of the rapidly changing aquaculture industry,” she said.

Many local people who supported the bill also cited concerns about the American Aquafarms proposal. 

Zach Piper, a fisherman from Hancock, was in favor of the bill and also had concerns about the salmon farm. 

“This is an area I lobster heavily in, as do countless other lobster fishermen who set traps to their living,” he said. 

He supported an owner operator model for aquaculture but feared “big-scale corporations owning Maine’s waters.”

“I’m never going to be for that,” he said.

Friends of Frenchman Bay President Kathleen Rybarz supported the bill and is in favor of limits on the number of acres that one leaseholder could have. 

“We believe it is important to discourage large lease aquaculture sites in Frenchman Bay,” she said.

Rybarz wants to encourage smaller businesses to take to the ocean and is wary of businesses buying up previously approved leases.

“A subsequent lessee could cause major environmental damage to the bay in many ways, by, for example misunderstanding the process or proper maintenance of equipment,” she said. 

But many aquaculture businesses contended that the ability to easily renew or transfer a lease was essential; otherwise, the start-up costs and work put in to build a business would be rendered worthless.

“It takes the value right out of the business,” said Joshua Conover, the owner of Marshall Cove Mussels in Islesboro. 

He understood that people feared the finfish and larger operations, but instead of trying to change the whole lease application process because of one or two possible lease sites, he said the state should continue to work under its current framework and maybe tweak a few things. 

“I think that the broadness of this bill is really going to hurt aquaculture right when it’s taking off in the state,” he said. 

The DMR itself argued against the bill and said that the Department of Environmental Protection found it duplicative to require projects to go through the Natural Resources Protection Act. 

Meredith Mendelson, a deputy commissioner at DMR, called out the bill’s provision that would limit sites to 50 acres, saying that size doesn’t always equate to problems on the water. For example, there is only one lease over 50-acres — an 89-acre blue mussel operation in Lamoine that doesn’t prohibit lobstering or other activities in the area. 

The 100-acre limit proposed by the bill would also effectively rule out any finfish aquaculture because it wouldn’t be economical or environmentally feasible, she said.

Mendelson and others found it hard to comment on the bill because it is in concept form and exact legislation hadn’t been drafted, but felt that, as proposed, it would slow down the department’s work and any current applications. 

“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 changes is not feasible or beneficial to anyone involved,” she said. 

The Maine Aquaculture Association rallied people against the bill at the start of the hearing, with more than 60 speakers and 122 pieces of testimony submitted. 

The association’s executive director, Sebastian Belle, called on people to trust the DMR’s process to handle applications like the American Aquafarms salmon farm proposal.

“The concerns are legit,” he said. “I understand big sounds big and scary so I think what I would say to people who are concerned about that is trust the system. The system is designed to prevent a project going forward that is unreasonably going to interfere with a whole series of criteria.”   

After the mountains of testimony, the committee plans to have a work session on the bill next week. 

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