ELLSWORTH — It might have been the stormy weather, but a hearing on the massive overhaul of the Department of Marine Resources’ aquaculture regulations drew only a small and quiet turnout to City Hall last Thursday afternoon.
Ten shellfish and seaweed farmers listened as DMR Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson explained that the proposed rule had been written to make DMR’s aquaculture lease hearing procedures conform to the state’s Administrative Procedures Act, eliminate “duplicative language” and help Maine shellfish farming practices conform with the National Shellfish Sanitation Program.
The proposed rules also would make significant changes to the aquaculture lease application process, significantly altering requirements for Limited Purpose leases and appearing to expand the definition of what activities require an aquaculture lease.
Under the proposed rules, DMR would have to accept a draft application before a potential lessee holds a public scoping session. A major change in the proposed lease after the scoping session would require an entirely new application.
Currently, the scoping session precedes filing an application. From time to time, filed lease applications have differed significantly in size, scope or location from the proposal previously described to the public.
Another change would eliminate “multi-tract” leases, such as the one issued last year in the Bagaduce River to Taunton Bay Oyster Co. In the future, a separate application would have to be filed for each tract, even if they were be part of a single operation.
Other significant changes apply to Limited Purpose Aquaculture leases, which are smaller in area and generally for a shorter term than standard leases. According to Mendelson and DMR hearings officer Amanda Ellis, the number of applications for “experimental” limited purpose leases has been “trending up,” as people with small limited purpose “licenses” for 400 square feet have been applying for limited purpose leases to avoid applying for a standard aquaculture lease.
Under the new rules, applicants would be limited to no more than two pending LPA proposals at one time. Part of the rationale for the new rule, Mendelson said, was to “limit that process” of growers trying to avoid applying for standard leases where appropriate and also to try to make better use of DMR’s limited resources.
The multi-tract lease prohibition and the changes proposed for the LPA process elicited the only substantial comments from audience members, several of whom said they would file written comments with DMR.
Marsden Brewer, who is raising scallops on suspended long lines on a handful of LPAs in Penobscot Bay, expressed concerns that the new rules would create problems for growers like him who place small amounts of widely spaced gear and might need several separate but nearby sites for their gear.
Fiona de Koning, an owner of Acadia Aqua Farms, which grows mussels primarily in the waters around Mount Desert Island, said that if DMR were going to limit growers to filing no more than two LPA applications at a time, then there should be some requirement that the department act on those applications in a “timely” manner.
Trey Angera, one of the principals of Springtide Seaweed, which is applying for a standard lease to grow various kinds of seaweed in Frenchman Bay, raised concerns about a provision that would allow lease applications to be used to meet the National Shellfish Sanitation Program requirement for an “operations plan.” The NSSP requirements could change so the filed application would no longer comply, he said.
Mendelson said DMR wanted to avoid creating additional paperwork for aquaculturists.
Once DMR has received all the public comments on the proposed rules, a final version will be submitted to the DMR Advisory Council for its review and approval. If all goes as planned, Ellis said, that should happen sometime in mid- or late March.