Oyster farm drawing fire

 Neighbors and experts weighed in on a proposed new oyster farm in Thomas Bay last week at the Bar Harbor municipal building. PHOTO COURTESY BAR HARBOR OYSTER CO.

Neighbors and experts weighed in on a proposed new oyster farm in Thomas Bay last week at the Bar Harbor municipal building. PHOTO COURTESY BAR HARBOR OYSTER CO.

BAR HARBOR — A proposal for an oyster farm in Thomas Bay near the head of Mount Desert Island drew a large group to a public hearing July 28 in the municipal building here.

Tensions were evident as opponents of the project, some of them veterans of a multi-year effort to stop another oyster farm in nearby Goose Cove, voiced concerns about the project.

Salisbury Cove residents Joanna Walls and Jesse Fogg, doing business as Bar Harbor Oyster Company, have applied to the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) for 10-year aquaculture leases to grow American oysters in floating cages on two sites in Thomas Bay. The proposed lease sites – one an eight-acre rectangle, the other 16.5 acres – lie between Israel Point and the western shore of Thomas Island.

“We know it’s a lot to ask to use a resource that potentially belongs to everyone,” Walls said. “We don’t take it lightly.”

Israel Point is home to the Thundermist Road subdivision. The wooded, 66-acre Thomas Island is owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust.

A group of 18 residents of the subdivision formed Friends of Thomas Bay (FOTB) to oppose the application and hired attorney Sally Mills and other consultants.

Resident Glenn Milligan said he often kayaks from Israel Point since everyone in the subdivision has a share of a common lot to allow water access.

“Thomas Bay is calm and ideal for paddle sports. The farm is the perfect way to block us when we launch at Israel Point and head around Thomas Island.”

Walls and Fogg currently hold seven limited purpose leases for the culture of shellfish near the proposed lease area.

“I did not find it trivial to navigate around the existing floats” that are part of these operations, Milligan said.

The pair worked with Harbormaster Charlie Phippen to lay out the proposed sites, he said, to leave the deep water channel open for the kayaks and small motorboats that often use the area.

Walls and Fogg also worked with the Frenchman Bay Partners and MDI Biological Laboratory, they said, to be sure the lease site would not interfere with an ongoing eelgrass restoration project. Researchers have not yet discovered the reasons for disappearance of traditional eelgrass beds in the area, but they suspect former mussel-dragging operations.

Milligan said the group also is very concerned about light, sound and visual impacts. “Sound carries across the water extremely well. It’s a quality of life issue for us.”

The plan calls for mooring 170 floating OysterGro system cages on the site during the first year of the lease. Each wire cage is 36 inches wide, similar to a lobster trap in construction and is suspended from a pair of 41-inch-long, 9-inch-wide black plastic floats that are anchored to the bottom, often in strings of 10.

Fogg said they have so far been met with “an abundance of cooperation, enthusiasm and support.” They would expand their operation to 500 cages in the second year, and in the third year, have a total of 1,240 cages filled with growing oysters.

The planned layout of the oyster cages also is less dense than the manufacturer recommendations, meaning more sunlight will penetrate to the sea floor. No night operations, no lights and no power washing are planned.

Opponents worry that cormorants, seagulls or other birds would be attracted to the oyster cages and pose a hazard to operations at the nearby Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport.

“OysterGro cages do represent good roosting habitat, but my sense is oysters do not present a food source for these birds,” aquaculture specialist Jon Lewis said. “Bird deterrent devices on the floats in the growing position seem to be effective.”

DMR hearing officer Hannah Dean said testimony related to aviation concerns would not be admitted, because those issues are outside the DMR’s jurisdiction. Aquaculture lease applicants are required to obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which coordinates with the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We were at a similar hearing in 2010, and speakers at that hearing were not censored,” Trenton Selectman Sue Starr said.

“If you are responsible for granting the lease, and it’s not properly coordinated between the various agencies, then there’s a breakdown in the process,” Trenton resident Bill Stockman said. “For we, the public, it’s important to have a forum in which to discuss these issues, and so far that’s been unavailable to us.”

A scoping session on the project was held in January 2015. The DMR found the application complete in June of that year. In September, Lewis and Marcy Nelson conducted a site review, including underwater video recording of the sea floor.

The boards of selectmen of Mount Desert and Trenton, as well as the county commissioners, have sent letters to the DMR and to the Army Corps opposing the farm and asking for the Army Corps to conduct its own public hearing.

“Recent history has shown by the granting of an aquaculture lease in nearby Goose Cove that human lives and airport safety are not amongst the highest priorities when balanced against profit and the goal to make aquaculture a viable Maine industry,” the Mount Desert selectmen wrote. “If this lease is granted, the Hancock County Airport will be nearly surrounded with significant aquaculture leases, with the potential to attract enough birds to the flight path to present a serious peril.”

The next step in the application process is for the hearing officer to compile testimony from the hearing and written comments received and create a draft decision, which is sent to the applicant and any interveners (FOTB is one.). The applicant and interveners have 10 days to review and comment on the draft decision before the complete file is sent to the DMR commissioner for a final decision.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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