TRENTON — Warren Pettegrow, owner of Acadia Sea Farms Inc., has applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for permission to lower one-third to two-thirds of the cages in his Goose Cove oyster farm to the ocean floor.
That would be a modification of his Army Corps permit, issued in March 2015, which stipulates that all cages must remain on the surface of the water.
“No gear is to be deployed on the bottom, other than necessary mooring gear for any floating equipment,” the permit states.
Attorney Andy Hamilton of Eaton Peabody, who represents Pettegrow, said in a March 10 letter to LeeAnn Neal, senior projects manger for the Army Corps in Maine, that cages should be at the surface of the water during the first year of the oysters’ life so they can get the nutrients needed for growth.
But he said the cages should be lowered to the ocean floor sometime between the second and third year “depending on the myriad ocean conditions that impact oyster growth.”
“By the third year, all oyster cages should be lowered to the sea floor in order to maximize growth rates in the final stages of the organism’s life cycle prior to commercial sale,” Hamilton wrote.
Town of Trenton officials strongly oppose the modification of Pettegrow’s oyster farm permit.
“We implore you to not relax permit conditions in the slightest,” Board of Selectman Chairman Fred Ehrlenbach said in an April 7 letter to Neal.
In a letter the same day to the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), which granted a lease for the oyster farm in 2015, Ehrlenbach cited testimony by Jane Disney, a biologist who monitors eelgrass populations in Frenchman Bay, at a public hearing in 2010. He said she explained that raising oyster cages from the ocean floor stirs up sediment that reduces the amount of light available for eelgrass photosynthesis.
Ehrlenbach said Disney further stated that “It is possible to lose the eelgrass in Goose Cove within a year if conditions are sufficiently adverse to its survival.”
Hamilton addressed that issue in his letter to Neal. He said Acadia Sea Farms’ two 25-acre lease sites are located over “an area of the sea floor not populated by eelgrass, based on recent dives.”
He added that eelgrass does grow to the north and northeast of the lease sites.
“The presence of the oysters on the sea floor and their filtering of sea water may improve water clarity and the health of the nearby eelgrass beds,” he wrote.
And he said that lowering cages to the ocean floor “may also create essential fish habitat for species such as lobster and other crustaceans, while also potentially improving habitat for other [bottom dwelling] species in the area.”
Trenton officials and some of the town’s residents have long opposed plans for the oyster farm, which call for eventually maintaining as many as 5,000 cages in Goose Cove. Among the concerns they have expressed is the potential for the oyster cages to attract birds, which they say could pose a hazard to aircraft taking off and landing at the nearby Hancock County-Bar Harbor Airport.
Pettegrow and his representatives commissioned a study showing that such fears are unfounded. But Trenton officials claim the study was flawed.
Hamilton said in his March 10 letter to Neal that by submerging some of the oyster cages, Acadia Sea Farms “can further reduce the impact of seabirds on the area.”
Among the people with whom Pettegrow has consulted over the years is Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias. Last August, Beal notified the Army Corps’ Neal that Pettegrow planned to experiment with submerging some of the oyster cages “in an attempt to reduce gear on the water that could potentially attract birds.”
He added: “We anticipate that the effect on growth and survival of oysters by placing large/older animals on the bottom vs. keeping them floating on/at the surface will be minimal; however, we will use an experimental approach to answer these questions.”
Neal responded to Beal with an email pointing out that neither the Army Corps permit nor the Maine DMR lease agreement currently allows for oyster cages to be lowered to the ocean floor.
Pettegrow began putting oyster cages in the water last summer.
Erhlenbach said in his April 7 letter to Neal, “Mr. Pettegrow had barely placed 70 cages in Goose Cove when he realized the permit condition placed him in a less profitable position, and he immediately sought relief from a restriction that was placed in his permit for the good of the public.
“Now that he wants relief,” Ehrlenbach continued, “as a consolation to the public, he admits that floating oyster cages attract birds, and he will do the public the favor of eliminating some of that attraction, thus making air travel safer for us. He is too kind.”