AUGUSTA — An application by a Brunswick oyster farm for a 10-year, 40-acre lease in Casco Bay drew a band of protesters to the state capitol last week.
They were there to petition the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to impose a moratorium on aquaculture leases of more than 10 acres and to change its leasing regulations to adopt what the petition called “a more holistic approach to the future of Maine’s coastline.”
The Mere Point Oyster Co. currently raises oysters on several Limited Purpose Aquaculture sites with an aggregate area of about a quarter-acre off the Brunswick shore in southern Maine.
The company applied to DMR for a lease on a 40-acre site in Maquoit Bay, also in the town of Brunswick, from which it hopes to eventually harvest some 1.5 million oysters annually. The application drew vociferous opposition at a DMR public hearing that stretched out for three days between November and January. Among the plan’s critics were members of a local citizens’ group, Save Maquoit Bay, and several lobstermen who said the lease would keep them from their traditional fishing areas.
Last week, members of that group and several lobstermen presented a petition at the Statehouse asking DMR to change its aquaculture leasing regulations to require the commissioner to “consider whether there is a more suitable location” for a proposed lease site that would “interfere less with existing and surrounding uses of the area.” The petition, with 189 signatures, also asked DMR to adopt a moratorium on pending applications for leases of more than 10 acres and to make the moratorium “retroactive” to the Mere Point application.
While opponents have voiced several reasons for their concerns about the proposed lease, several lobstermen who fish around the Casco Bay area have complained that the proposed lease would take away “prime lobster grounds” in what one described as “a land grab.”
One of the petition’s supporters in Augusta last week was Maine Lobstering Union spokeswoman Julie Eaton, who said fishermen worried that large leases could be “attractive to out-of-state investors” and would “eat up” the sea floor.
On Monday, Eaton said that while large aquaculture leases are “a problem” for lobstermen in southern Maine, fishermen “have much bigger things on our plate this year,” citing an impending shortage of bait and the likelihood of strict new whale protection rules.
While aquaculture leases are “not a problem” in the waters where she fished for decades, Eaton said, DMR needs to have “more stringent regulations before we lose our bottom.”
As of last Thursday, DMR listed 35 pending aquaculture lease applications on its website. Of those, 10 were for “standard” leases with an aggregate total area of just over 95.6 acres, including the 40-acre Mere Point site, spread between Casco Bay and Frenchman Bay.
According to the company, Maquoit Bay encompasses approximately 3,000 acres. Its proposed lease site would cover about 1 percent of the area of the bay.
In an email last week, DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said the department would determine whether the petition had a sufficient number of valid signatures and, if so, “proceed to rulemaking.” State law requires at least 150 valid signatures. Nichols also said the department would have no comment on the substance of the proposed rule change until the rulemaking process had been completed.