BAR HARBOR — If a new oyster farm proposed by Joanna Walls and Jesse Fogg is approved, restaurants on Mount Desert Island may be adding Bar Harbor oysters to their menus.
On Jan. 20, the two Hadley Point residents hosted a “scoping session” to discuss their plan to apply 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.
Israel Point is home to the Thundermist Road subdivision. The wooded, 66-acre Thomas Island is owned by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
Scoping sessions give the public a chance to discuss a planned aquaculture venture before an aspiring fish farmer files a lease application with the DMR. The sessions are informal, though occasionally they are decidedly confrontational.
That wasn’t the case last Tuesday evening at MDI High School. More than a dozen people gathered to hear Walls and Fogg explain the plan. Most of them were supportive, but several experienced shellfish farmers urged the couple to proceed with caution before committing a lot of capital to their venture.
According to Fogg, 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 and Walls 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.
“This should be the maximum needed on the site to reach our primary goal of raising 1 million oysters per year,” Fogg said in an email last week. “We may slowly build up to more cages than 1,240,” though that may not be necessary to achieve their production target.
According to Walls, the proposed lease site appears to be well suited to a venture that will give her and Fogg “a way to get home. She works on yachts much of the year. Fogg is a 2007 Maine Maritime Academy graduate who works in Alaska.
Based on their studies, Fogg said, the proposed lease sites are well sheltered from bad weather and deep enough so that the cages can be submerged to the bottom in winter and not be crushed by ice. Several shellfish farmers said that the upper end of Frenchman Bay had, so far, remained free of red tide (PSP) during even the worst years.
College of the Atlantic professor Chris Petersen said the lease “doesn’t appear to be an issue for anadromous fish runs in Northeast Creek,” but some concern was expressed about the impact on Frenchman Bay’s fragile eelgrass resource.
One man said the site “is sitting on what historically used to be the biggest eelgrass bed in Frenchman Bay.” Years of mussel dragging in the area has decimated the eelgrass in that area.
Terry Towne, the Maine Coast Heritage Trust steward for Thomas Island, said the trust had been replanting eelgrass off the northwest corner of the island, but outside the proposed lease sites.
Environmental issues and supportive shellfish farmers notwithstanding, not everyone was happy about the plan.
Paul Richardson said that the lease operations would have “a dramatic visual impact on my lot.” He lives in a house located at the tip of Israel Point and has been involved in the development of the Thundermist subdivision, an area with “high property values.”
With the DMR lease application likely to take a year or more to process, several shellfish growers suggested that Fogg and Walls apply for Limited Purpose Aquaculture Licenses so that they could get started growing oysters on a small scale to see if the sites were truly satisfactory. LPAs have a one-year term and are limited to 400 square feet in area and four in number for each applicant in a single locale.
Chris Vonderweidt, the DMR aquaculture policy development specialist supervising the session, said the agency could now process LPA applications within a few weeks and asked whether Fogg and Walls were likely to submit a formal lease application.
Fogg replied that they were “probably a week away.”