Conflicts on the water are nothing new. It wasn’t that long ago that, along with apple cider and pumpkins, autumn brought the start of scallop fishing season and an increase in tensions between lobstermen who set their traps on the sea floor and scallop draggers who towed their metal drags along it. Individual lobstermen are still fiercely protective of “their” bottom — areas of the sea floor where they, and sometimes their fathers and grandfathers before them, have set their traps for years.
Maine’s growing aquaculture industry also has been a source of conflict. Owners of nearby shorefront properties have raised concerns about the environmental or aesthetic impacts of Department of Marine Resources-issued leases allowing oyster or mussel farming. In some cases, lobstermen have worried that a lease may limit their access to areas where they have set their traps. Recently, opponents to an application for a 40-acre shellfish lease in the southern Maine town of Brunswick have seized on what may be the legitimate concerns of a handful of local fishermen to attack the state’s aquaculture leasing process. With the help of a professional public relations consultant, the lease opponents appear to have undertaken a concerted effort to marshal Maine lobstermen against aquaculture. They claim that fish farmers can “own” up to 1,000 acres of the ocean, that DMR “grants 99 percent of all licenses and leases for aquaculture in Maine waters” notwithstanding objections from local lobstermen and that aquaculture leases can be transferred without a public hearing, unlike lobster licenses which can’t be transferred at all.
Of course, fish farmers don’t own any part of the ocean. Their leases from the state — which may not include more than 100 acres — include conditions on how they may operate and, in many cases, allow some fishing in the leased area. A company can have multiple lease sites totaling up to 1,000 acres.
Although aquaculture has been a part of Maine for nearly 50 years, no one entity has amassed leases encompassing the 1,000-acre limit. According to DMR, Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian salmon farmer, leases some 637 acres spread over several sites between Swan’s Island and Cobscook Bay. The largest single lease in the state, for the bottom culture of mussels, covers just under 90 acres off Lamoine and allows lobster and crab fishing on the lease site. While no public hearing is required to transfer a lease, all transfers are subject to approval by DMR and nearby shorefront owners get prior notice of the transfer request and a chance to comment.
Lobstermen may have legitimate concerns about a particular lease application, or the leasing process in general, but it is a mistake to portray the lobster and aquaculture industries as enemies. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says the organization supports aquaculture as part of a diverse marine economy. Many lobstermen already farm oysters, scallops or mussels to diversify their businesses. The key for future growth of the aquaculture industry, McCarron says, is that lobstermen be given adequate and early opportunities to participate in the leasing process so that DMR can address their legitimate concerns.
That seems perfectly logical. What should not be encouraged, though, is any effort to pit one kind of fishing, or the users of one kind of fishing gear, against another.
While the state’s aquaculture leasing process might well be improved, the Legislature and DMR have invested substantial efforts to establish aquaculture laws and regulations that are balanced and sustainable. It is wrong to suggest that lobstermen and other traditional fisheries have been discounted in the process.