PENOBSCOT — Unlike most Department of Marine Resources events dealing with aquaculture in the Bagaduce River, the crowd was small last week when the department held a scoping session at the Penobscot Elementary School for a proposal to establish a new oyster farm downriver from the Bagaduce Lunch drive-in.
Prospect resident Joe Rego has limited purpose aquaculture (LPA) licenses to grow oysters on three sites located east of Nab Island and a few hundred feet below the tidal falls and the bridge that carries routes 175 and 176 across the Bagaduce. The total combined area of the three LPAs is 1,200 square feet — the maximum allowed. During the past three years, Rego said, he has been raising between 100,000 and 150,000 oysters in black, plastic mesh oyster bags anchored on the three LPA sites.
That information surprised one member of the audience who said her home is located on the riverbank near Rego’s operations and that she had never noticed any oyster bags or nets.
Last week, Rego told an audience of about a dozen, including both area residents and shellfish farmers, that he now wants a full-scale aquaculture lease covering an area of somewhat less than three acres situated in the same area as the LPAs. The site is favorable for oyster farming, Rego said, because there is no eelgrass in the area and it is relatively free of marine life that prey on oysters, primarily starfish and the predatory snail with a voracious appetite for oysters known as the oyster drill.
“I’m going from a quarter-acre to 2.75 or 2.9 acres and use up to 700 oyster bags,” Rego said.
That would not, however, increase the density of gear in the water. While the area subject to a lease would increase about 100-fold, the number of oyster bags used on the site would only double, Rego said.
Rego also plans to grow some oysters on top of plastic mesh predator nets spread on the mud. The nets keep the oysters from sinking into the mud and smothering, he said.
Tom Atherton, who was assisting Rego at the session, said he had used a similar technique growing oysters in waters off the town of Bar Harbor. According to Atherton, the nets sink into the bottom mud, held in place by the weight of the oysters growing on them.
The nets pose no danger, he said, to fauna that lives in the mud and the ¼-inch mesh is too fine to entangle aquatic birds that might visit the area.
“Municipalities all through southern Maine use them on their clam flats,” Atherton said.
According to Rego, he will harvest oysters by hand and will not do any dragging. He explained that the site is shallow enough so that the cages could be reached by someone in waders or hip boots and that the nets would be harvested by rolling them, and their crop of oysters, up and carrying them away.
The modest water depth was one issue of concern to Bailey Bowden, chairman of the town’s Shellfish Committee.
According to Bowden, if Rego’s lease site were situated too close to shore it could interfere with diggers who harvest clams from area flats.
Bowden said the committee also was worried that strong river currents could “wash invasive species (oysters) off the lease site into public waters” where they might spawn, and that oysters could spread disease that might affect soft shell clams.
“Your industry is affecting my life,” Bowden said.
Rego said he would prefer to stock oysters on the site that lack the capacity to spawn and reproduce and are available from the hatcheries where he would buy his seed oysters.
“I’d rather have an oyster that can’t spawn — they grow faster,” Rego said.
Rego told the audience he had no plans to increase the size of his lease. He has seen how oyster farming has taken over the Damariscotta River on the Midcoast and doesn’t like it at all, he said.
Penobscot resident Tom Stewart asked Rego how the town could be sure that he would not be part of the “aquaculture creep” he said he disliked, and increase the size of his lease.
“I give you my word, I’m not expanding,” Rego replied.
The next step for Rego is to file a formal application with DMR for an aquaculture lease. That would begin a review process, including a site visit by department scientists, and eventually require a public hearing.
DMR Aquaculture Coordinator Jon Lewis said the department was already overloaded with applications and that the process could take more than a year after any application was filed.