PENOBSCOT — The contentious, drawn-out battle over an aquaculture lease in the Bagaduce River came to an apparent end Monday afternoon when Taunton Bay Oyster Co. President Michael Briggs emailed the Department of Marine Resources and asked the agency to “terminate the entire lease immediately.”
The reason Briggs offered in his two-line email directed “to whom it may concern” and sent to a trio of DMR employees was that “(t)he conditions imposed on my Northern Bay lease make it too risky for me to continue.”
The lease in question covered two tracts in the upper Bagaduce River just below the entrance to Northern Bay.
Briggs began his quest for the opportunity to farm oysters in the Bagaduce in 2012 when he first met with Penobscot selectmen to discuss a potential lease. He ended it after DMR refused to settle litigation over the terms of the lease the department finally granted last year.
The decision granting a lease came some 18 months after the conclusion of a contentious public hearing on the issue that occupied three long evenings during the winter of 2017.
After DMR granted the lease, Taunton Bay appealed the decision to the Superior Court because of restrictions the lease contained. Efforts to resolve the dispute by means of a settlement were fruitless, Briggs said.
“I spent $12,000, $15,000 in legal fees and got nowhere,” Briggs said in a telephone conversation Tuesday morning. “I’m tired of wasting my time.”
According to Briggs, his objections to the lease were its bans on overwintering oyster cages on the river bottom and, primarily, the prohibition against dragging or hand raking to harvest oysters planted on the lease site.
“I just wanted it as a backup,” to the usual hand harvesting by divers, Briggs said about dragging. “I’m not going to put 2 or 3 million oysters on the bottom with no backup. I’m not going to do it.”
Taunton Bay initially applied for a lease on three tracts encompassing just under 23 acres in the vicinity of Aunt Mollie Island, Sparks Island and Gravel Island.
The application was controversial and engendered considerable opposition from landowners along the Bagaduce and in the area, as well as from the Penobscot Shellfish Committee and a few lobster fishermen.
Caren Plank, owner of both Sparks and Aunt Mollie islands, also opposed the lease application and formally intervened as a party to the proceedings. On Tuesday, she learned that Taunton Bay had directed DMR to terminate its lease
“Wow,” Plank said. “Oh my gosh, the wildlife. That’s what it’s always been about for me.”
Plank said that, in part, her objection to the lease was its sheer size, as well as its potential to affect the river environment.
“For me,” she said, “scale is important. I’m thrilled.”
Penobscot resident Tom Adamo was another critic of the proposed oyster farm. Like Plank, he was surprised by news of the lease termination but his comment was addressed to the aquaculture leasing process rather than to the lease itself.
“The hearing was very difficult,” Adamo said Tuesday. “DMR needs to develop a methodology where all stakeholders can sit around as long as it takes to come to a mutual agreement and partially satisfactory resolution” over a proposed lease. “People have a right to earn a living, but people have a right to use the water too.”
Briggs made it clear that the termination of his company’s lease in the Bagaduce River didn’t mean it was getting out of the oyster business.
Recently Taunton Bay Oyster Co. applied to DMR for an approximately 14-acre lease in Taunton Bay, in the town of Hancock, where the company has farmed oysters for several years. Briggs has acquired some shorefront property on the bay and plans to build a wharf and conveyor system that will make it much easier to load and unload the boats used for seeding and harvesting oysters.
“It will be a much better operation,” Briggs said.