HANCOCK — Select Board members have tabled making decisions on a number of aquaculture-related topics. Among those is whether they should sign a letter to Governor Janet Mills in opposition to the salmon farm being proposed by American Aquafarms, a Norwegian-backed company that is applying to raise Atlantic salmon in ocean pens at two 60-acre sites in Frenchman Bay.
While some board members and the members of the public in attendance at the Feb. 2 Select Board meeting supported signing the letter and opposed industrial-scale aquaculture projects, the board wanted more information before signing.
Additionally, the board tabled voting on a proposed aquaculture development moratorium, an idea that was floated at a previous board meeting by Crystal Canney, executive director of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation.
The foundation supports small-scale aquaculture farmers but feels the state isn’t doing enough to protect large-scale projects and out-of-state investors from affecting Maine’s coast, Canney told the Islander. The moratorium was developed to help towns examine the stressors on Maine waters and the small owner-operators who work there.
Current regulations allow aquaculture lessees to hold leases for up to 1,000 acres.
“That’s a lot of the ocean,” Canney said.
A draft of the moratorium developed by law firm Drummond Woodsum calls for a 180-day pause on expansion of “industrial-scale aquaculture development,” including projects greater than 5 acres. It would not affect those who already hold leases.
This prompted debate among some members of the public at the meeting, including Fiona de Koning of Acadia Aqua Farms, who said limiting projects to 5 acres would keep farmers from harvesting enough to be profitable.
To have a business and a sustainable, clean product, “You need a substantial amount of bottom to grow mussels on,” said Joe Porada, chairman of the Frenchman Bay Regional Shellfish Committee, to the Islander. He said those sites are in places that don’t interfere with traditional uses or other fisheries.
Wild mussel stock is declining up and down the coast north of Deer Isle, he said, naming the invasion of green crab as one of the problems.
At the meeting, Porada voiced his support for shellfish aquaculture farmers, his disapproval of the moratorium and said that he opposed the American Aquafarms finfish proposal. He announced plans to run for one of the two open seats on the town’s Select Board but withdrew the next day.
“I think … seeing what to me is misinformation and disinformation and skewed perspectives … I think I can do more for the working waterfront from where I stand,” with the Shellfish Committee, Porada said about his decision not to run.
“This is just a suggestion and a starting point,” Canney told the Islander, about the proposed moratorium. “It’s really important you develop what’s right for your bay, not us.”
She explained the acreage regulations could be tailored to a number that the town is comfortable with and that five is considered “best practice.”
One question Canney posed that the town could consider if it imposes the moratorium is, “How do we want to responsibly steward the ocean?”
Jeri Bowers, a member of the board of Frenchman Bay United, said that if the town adopted the moratorium, the halt on aquaculture development would allow the town to have a community conversation and come to a consensus on the size and scope of allowable projects in Hancock.
“The trend is for larger-scale leases,” Bowers said. The 50-acre and higher applications prompt environmental concerns, she said.
For Porada, the argument isn’t so much about limiting leases with a lot of acreage but understanding the difference in practices between shellfish and finfish aquaculture.
“Shellfish aquaculture is pretty much noninvasive,” he said. “It’s pretty much gear in the water fed by natural food in the water.”
Porada’s view is that the state Department of Marine Resources does regulate shellfish aquaculture appropriately and that it can take over a year to receive an experimental lease from the department. Protections are in place for wormers, clammers and lobstermen, he added.
He thinks some opposition may be more rooted in a perception that shellfish aquaculture negatively affects the environment and is not aesthetically pleasing to some waterfront homeowners, calling the issue “gentrification of the coast.”
He said there is a way to have a conversation about the future of aquaculture without imposing a moratorium.
While there was some confusion over whether the moratorium and the letter to Mills were mutually exclusive, once it was understood that they were two, separate issues, board members still decided to table making a decision on either.
De Koning suggested the board contact the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program, which offers information and support to municipalities.
The board also tabled a decision to put an article on the warrant for town meeting that will ask voters if they want the town to become an intervenor in the American Aquafarms application process with Maine Department of Marine Resources, which is responsible for overseeing the lease applications for aquaculture farmers.
If granted that status, “intervenors may provide testimony and present witnesses during the public hearing,” and in some cases, can make comments on the draft decision of an application, according to the department’s website.