PENOBOSCOT — A proposal to grow more than 3 million oysters in Northern Bay is stirring more concern about expanding aquaculture on the Bagaduce River.
In early March, the Taunton Bay Oyster Co. and the Department of Marine Resources held a scoping session at the Penobscot Elementary School on the company’s plan to apply for a lease to grow oysters on as many as three sites covering a total of about 24.92 acres. For the past several years, the company has farmed oysters on a variety of sites — currently numbering four that cover slightly less than 28 acres — in Taunton and Hog bays.
About 30 to 40 people were on hand as company President Michael Briggs outlined plans involving several possible alternative sites along a stretch of the Bagaduce more or less between Bridges Point on the north and Gravel Island on the south.
According to Briggs, most of the total area, in whatever configuration of sites might ultimately be selected, would be devoted to bottom culture. That technique calls for juvenile oysters to be spread “broadcast” onto the mud river bottom and later harvested when they grow to marketable size after about 24-36 months. Approximately six acres would be devoted to the rearing of seed oysters in floating plastic bags until they were large enough to plant on the bottom.
DMR regulations require a scoping session before any application for an aquaculture lease is filed. Their purpose is to give a potential lease applicant, local residents and municipal authorities an opportunity to discuss, raise questions and make suggestions about a nascent plan before a formal lease application is filed. If an application is filed, it is subjected to a review by DMR. During the process, department biologists visit and inspect the site and dive on it using SCUBA gear to assess bottom and sea life characteristics. DMR next holds a formal public hearing to take sworn testimony in favoring and opposing the application, then makes a determination as to whether it meets statutory criteria for granting an aquaculture lease.
Initial reaction to Taunton Bay Oyster’s plans was generally unfavorable. Among the concerns expressed to Briggs and DMR aquaculture policy specialist Chris Vonderweidt at the scoping session were that the lease operations might generate excessive traffic at the Penobscot town landing and that DMR had no information about the carrying capacity of the Bagaduce watershed for oyster farming. Scientists define “carrying capacity” as the maximum population size of a particular species the environment can sustain indefinitely, considering the food supply, habitat, water and other necessities.
One area resident expressed her concern that the operation might have an adverse impact on the population of starfish — a source of food for some seabirds — in the area. Starfish are a significant predator for oysters. Briggs said the divers who harvest the company’s oysters often remove concentrations of starfish from growing areas.
Another issue was a complaint frequently voiced by residents of the Bagaduce River watershed area — that DMR has not conducted any scientific baseline studies of the Bagaduce or established any sort of comprehensive plan to control the development of aquaculture in the area.
“I thought it went better than what I expected,” Briggs said a few days after the scoping session.
He said he was preparing a formal application for an aquaculture lease to grow oysters on some combination of the sites described during the session and would probably file it with DMR “within a month,” sometime early in April.