ELLSWORTH — If too many cooks spoil the broth, too many limited purpose aquaculture licenses may be spoiling the waters for Maine’s fish farming industry.
The licenses and the sites they cover, both known as “LPAs,” have a one-year term, renewable annually. The area of an LPA site is limited to no more than 400 square feet, and no licensee may hold more than four LPAs at one time.
Conceived as a way to get people interested in trying aquaculture without requiring a major investment, the licenses issued by the Department of Marine Resources have become a different kettle of fish.
With a few individuals having several LPAs, sometimes with family members also having several LPAs, it appears that some relatively large-scale commercial shellfish growers, by aggregating operation on those sites, might be avoiding the expensive and protracted process — including often contentious public hearings — required to obtain a regular aquaculture lease from the DMR.
Since the Legislature established the license, the number of active LPAs has grown exponentially, although the exact number is difficult to determine. On its website, the DMR currently lists some 150 LPAs with licenses that were issued for 2014 or were in the process of renewal. At the end of 2017, many, if not all, of those LPA sites were in use, although the status of their licenses was, at least online, uncertain.
The proposed regulations clarify the rules for obtaining, operating and renewing an LPA and implement changes to the state’s aquaculture laws enacted last year.
Perhaps foremost among the changes is the requirement that, starting with the 2019 license year, applicants for a new LPA or an LPA renewal must complete an educational program approved by the DMR that would cover, among other items, public heath issues as well as good farm management and biosecurity practices to prevent pathogens affecting plants or animals from spreading between farms.
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said his organization “supported the educational piece” of the new rules.
“We lobbied for that in the legislature,” Belle said.
Another key element of the revised rules is to limit the number of “helpers” working at each LPA site to no more than three and to limit the number of LPAs those helpers may work on to no more than four, other than their own.
Belle called the limitation “a step in the right direction” to control the rapid expansion of LPAs, “but it may not limit their growth.”
While many of the proposed revisions to the regulations appear merely technical, there are two other changes that are significant.
The first clarifies how the dimensions of an LPA are to be measured with an eye to eliminating oddly-shaped sites that might interfere with placing other LPAs or make it difficult for the Marine Patrol to determine exactly what the boundaries of a particular LPA might be.
The second change eliminates the burdensome requirement that every piece of gear used on an LPA be marked with the license-holder’s identification. That could mean marking dozens, or hundreds, of nets, shellfish growing bags and other equipment.
“That’s OK if someone is taking care of their gear properly,” Belle said, “but it might make it difficult for the Marine Patrol to identify gear that has come loose.”
If there is sufficient interest in the new regulations, the DMR will hold public hearings on Monday, Jan. 22, at Yarmouth Log Cabin in Yarmouth and on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at the Maine State Ferry Terminal in Rockland. Both hearings are scheduled for 6 p.m. Information about weather-related schedule changes will be posted on the DMR website: maine.gov/dmr.