TRENTON — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers heard arguments for and against the proposed Bar Harbor Oyster Co. farm in Thomas Bay at a public hearing Monday night.
Joanna Walls and Jesse Fogg, operators of the farm, were granted a 10-year aquaculture lease by the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to raise American and European oysters.
The lease site contains an eight-acre and a 16.5-acre parcel located between Israel Point and the western shore of Thomas Island, east of the Trenton Bridge.
Before they can begin operations, the operation also must receive a permit from the Army Corps, which manages public waterways.
Nearly 40 aviation experts, biologists, fishermen, pilots, area residents and officials attended the two-and-a-half-hour public hearing at the Trenton town office.
Most of the testimony regarded the claim that the oyster farm would be a wildlife attractant that could prove hazardous for aircraft taking off and landing at the Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport.
In a slide presentation, Thundermist Road subdivision resident Glenn Milligan cited Federal Aviation Administration data about bird strikes.
Between 2009 and 2014, there were 10 bird strikes at the county airport in Trenton.
He believes the gull and cormorant populations in the area are increasing. Cormorants are especially worrisome because they are so heavy, he said.
According to FAA guidelines, a potential wildlife attractant should be no less than 5,000 feet from the end of a runway.
The Thomas Bay oyster farm would have cages 2,000 feet from the end of the seaplane ramp, which is rarely used.
Milligan said there is no precedent for an aquaculture project so close to an airport.
“I cannot identify any other airport in the U.S. that has aquaculture activities so close to a runway,” he said.
Airport Manager Brad Madeira said the airport is against the farm because there is “uncertainty for whether or not [oyster cages] attract seabirds.”
Madeira asked the Army Corps to follow a “conservative approach and follow your own guidelines until there is research proving that no danger exists.”
He asked that if the Army Corps should grant the permit, the operation should enact a wildlife mitigation plan to make the site unattractive to gulls and install anti-perching devices on both ends of the cages.
“We are not interested in an experiment that could cause damage of property or loss life at our airport,” he said.
Bill Stockman, leader of a Trenton citizen group opposed to the oyster farm, said he is concerned with public safety.
“The town of Trenton has a school very close to the airport, and the firehouse, town office – planes fly right by here,” he said. “All of the workers and millions of visitors to Mount Desert Island go under the flight path at least twice.”
Stockman said that the bird strike possibility is “an issue for the public at large,” and he urged the Army Corps not to grant Bar Harbor Oyster Co. the permit.
Marine biologist Sherri Eldridge focused her testimony on water quality, saying that the oyster cages would prove to be detrimental to the ecosystem of Thomas Bay.
“The scale of this project is going to change the area from what know into an industrial operation,” she said.
The location of the cages blocks the only subtidal channel in the bay, she said, meaning biofoul and oyster feces would not easily be flushed out of the bay.
She asked the Army Corps to conduct an environmental study and confer with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Frank Blair, a pilot who has flown out of the county airport for 40 years, disagreed with testimony about the increased risk of bird strikes.
“If you are against the oyster farm, that’s fine. But don’t put it on us, the pilots,” he said.
Blair said that in at least the past 20 years, there has been no cormorant strike in the state, and that cormorants do not fly high enough to reach the path of an airplane.
“I’m not in danger of hitting a cormorant, and you are not in danger,” said Blair. “It is unfair to pretend it’s a problem, because it’s not a problem.”
The Army Corps will accept written comments until Nov. 17. It will then confer with the FAA, EPA and any other agency it believes could help with its permitting decision.
The public is invited to follow along with the process by contacting the Army Corps office in Manchester at 623-8367.
Address written comments to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: Shawn Mahaney, Maine Project Office, 65 Western Ave. #3, Manchester, ME 04351.