ELLSWORTH — Like nearly every facet of life, the pandemic has affected the state aquaculture industry, the Maine Aquaculture Advisory Council made clear in a virtual meeting on Dec. 7.
Aquaculture lease applications are backlogged because hearings stopped, which is “a huge concern for the aquaculture industry,” Council member Briana Warner said. In addition, 2021 funding for the state aquaculture program is unknown. Proposed legislation set for a vote in the 129th Legislature special session, after approval from the Marine Resources Committee, never happened when the Legislature did not reconvene.
“We have to start from scratch,” Department of Marine Resources Director of Policy Deirdre Gilbert said.
Advisory Council members are chosen from the aquaculture industry and currently are Warner, of Ocean Approved in Falmouth; Chris Davis, of Pemaquid Oyster Co. in Waldoboro; Fiona de Koning, of Acadia Aqua Farms in Bar Harbor; and Greg Lambert, of Cooke Aquaculture in Fairfield, plus the DMR commissioner or the commissioner’s designee as an ex-officio, non-voting member. Staff from the DMR Aquaculture Division attended the meeting, as did Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson and, for the second hour, Commissioner Patrick Keliher.
Marcy Nelson, acting director of the Aquaculture Division, said the backlog of applications is significant. While pre-application meetings took place virtually and in parking lots, 40 lease applications arrived in 2020, as the division was still working through the 60 applications from 2019. Meanwhile, the division has lost three of its six staff members, two full-time and one part-time, since May.
Mendelson noted that staff can handle about two hearings a month on average, including the reports they issue from the hearings.
“There’s no way we’re going to be keeping up,” she said.
And, adding new staff positions is unlikely with the current budget constraints.
“The agency has invested heavily in aquaculture,” Mendelson said, but that funding can’t be sustained.
The DMR set a $715,000 budget for aquaculture in 2020 and received $177,000 in application and license fees. The remaining $541,000 came from the DMR ($100,000); the General Fund ($105,000); indirect DMR funds ($287,000); a Coastal Zone Management (CZM) grant ($31,463); and the Opportunity Fund ($116,995). Some of that funding, particularly from the General Fund and indirect DMR funds, will likely not be available in 2021.
“Because of COVID, we’re in a real spot, which frankly leaves the industry in a tight spot,” Commissioner Keliher said, noting that the DMR allocated the indirect DMR funds to aquaculture because of anticipated growth in that area.
“We’ve all seen that growth,” he said. “We’ve not been able to keep up with that growth.”
While Keliher said he has heard that state revenues in 2021 will be better than expected and that relief may come from Congress, he concluded, “Hope is not a plan.”
On the legislative side, Gilbert said the 2020 bill proposal An Act to Amend Maine’s Aquaculture Leasing and Licensing Statutes will be resubmitted, with revisions.
The most substantive change requires the holder of a limited-purpose aquaculture (LPA) license to directly supervise all activities on the lease site. The additions to the proposed bill would recoup costs the DMR pays to publish public notices, which run about $30,000 a year, and limit the times when LPA applications will be accepted.
“We have [LPA] applications coming in throughout the year,” Mendelson said. And, when lease renewals start flooding in at the end of the year, “it’s incredibly busy.”
Other proposed amendments in the bill are:
• Notification — The Department of Environmental Protection need only be notified if an application involves activities that have a discharge.
• Revocation — A lease may be revoked if activities are being conducted in “a manner substantially injurious to the public health.”
• Renewals — Applications must be submitted within 30 days prior to expiration of a lease, reduced from 90 days.
• Transfers — The fee to transfer a lease to a new leaseholder must be paid at the time the application is submitted instead of when the transfer is executed.
• Expansions — A leaseholder may not apply for an expansion of a lease until the person has held the lease for two years, whereas now there is no time limit; the applicant is responsible for providing public notice, not DMR; and the DMR notifies riparian landowners, not the applicant.
• Fees — The DMR may establish fees for testing or location-specific studies to ensure a leaseholder’s products are safe for human consumption, when requested by the applicant.
• Changes in Operation — Language is broadened in allowing changes to leases, and the DMR will establish a fee for lease changes.
• Limited Purpose Aquaculture — The fee for residents would increase from $50 to $100, and from $300 to $400 for nonresidents; the license holder must supervise lease activities; and removes the commissioner’s rule-making authority regarding LPA leases.