By Jerilyn M. Bowers
Sebastian Belle is quick to lay blame (Islander, April 29) on a “few wealthy landowners” for “attacking the many who make their living on the water.” While that scenario makes for good theater, it is simply a clever attempt to distract you from the facts.
Let’s do as Mr. Belle suggests and “get the record straight” by reviewing the facts:
- Over the last 15 years, rules and regulations governing Maine’s aquaculture industry have been radically changed by:
- Increasing the maximum number of acres that can be leased by an entity from 250 acres to 1,000.
- Increasing the length of a lease from 10 years to 20.
- Allowing the transfer of a lease from one entity to another without a public hearing.
- There is no limit on the total number of leases that can be granted in a specific bay and no mechanism in place to assess the cumulative impact of these leases on water quality, navigation, fishing or the marine ecosystem.
- There has been an exponential increase in large-scale lease applications over the last decade. In 2010, DMR approved 34 aquaculture lease sites. In 2020, they approved 216.
- Currently, the Department of Marine Resources approves 95 percent of all applications, despite remaining chronically underfunded and understaffed.
The unintended consequence of relaxing these regulations is ironic since it jeopardizes the very industry Mr. Belle claims to protect. But as he rightly points out, most of Maine’s aquaculture entities could not even be described as small businesses – they are microscopic, owner-operator farms. And yet, by easing aquaculture regulations, Maine has opened its doors to large corporate entities, inviting them to set up shop in our coastal communities and drowning out the voice of Maine’s independent sea farmers. Have we learned nothing from the “Big Box Store” phenomena? As these industrial shellfish, kelp and finfish operations become more prevalent, output is sure to saturate the market making it increasingly difficult for local, small-scale, family-owned or independent producers to compete, or even deliver product into the market.
Furthermore, Mr. Belle fails to mention the concentration of power at the Department of Marine Resources. The statute grants the commissioner sole authority to determine whether or not an application presents “unreasonable interference” to navigation, fishing or other uses, ecologically significant flora and fauna and public use or enjoyment. Yet it stops short of defining what constitues “unreasonable interference,” leaving it instead for the commissioner to determine. At the very least, the term must be clearly defined and quantifiable.
At a recent public hearing, DMR testified that there was no need to review its policies, thus dismissing the opportunity for a statewide conversation to determine whether or not these policies meet the needs of Maine’s coastal communities. Although the DMR, members of the Legislature and Mr. Belle may not agree, the time for that conversation is now.
It is worth underscoring that the state of Maine is duty bound to uphold and manage our waters and submerged lands in perpetuity for the Public Trust, not for the financial interests of privately held companies or their investors.
Mr. Belle claims that Maine’s aquaculture leasing and environmental monitoring laws are the gold standard. But this could not be further from the truth. In fact, countries such as Norway, Scotland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have more stringent aquaculture regulations than the United States and Maine, including mandated regional marine sustainability plans – a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the corporate entities seeking to establish operations in our waters.
Aquaculture has tremendous potential for Maine, but we need to get it right. We are currently watching the implications of Maine’s regulatory changes, endorsed by the Maine Aquaculture Association, play out in real time. The pending proposal from American Aquafarms for two 60-acre salmon aquaculture lease sites in Frenchman Bay is a clear example of why tighter regulations are needed – not to harm Maine’s independent aquaculture industry, but to protect it.
Jerilyn M. Bowers resides in Hancock.