By Sebastian Belle
Let’s get the record straight. Fishermen and sea farmers have been coexisting along the coast of Maine for many years; we all make our living on the sea. The Maine Aquaculture Association was established in 1977. We depend on Maine’s clean ocean and healthy ecosystems to produce the world’s best seafood. We preserve Maine’s working waterfronts by building and supporting marine businesses.
Maine fishermen apply for permits or licenses to harvest a public resource. Sea farmers apply for leases and a series of licenses and permits to access public space and operate their farms raising mussels, oysters, kelp and salmon. No aquaculture leases issued in Maine grant the exclusive use of an area; they all allow for varying degrees of multiple use. Current law prohibits the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) from issuing a lease to a farmer if it does not comply with a series of criteria designed to protect the environment, prevent conflicts with other user groups, prevent interference with navigation and prevent obstruction of riparian landowners’ access to the water. In addition, all aquaculture leases issued in the state of Maine are a contract between the farmer and the state and include a series of conditions that, if violated, trigger the revocation of that lease. To be clear, it is illegal for DMR to issue a lease if it conflicts with an existing commercial fishery. In other words, existing fishing grounds are prioritized over proposed aquaculture sites. The lobbyists want the state Legislature to study this system, costing the state and businesses time and money. This is an attack by a few landowners on the many who work on the water. There have been some contentious ideas, and those who have been through this in the past know we have a system to verify that any development is of benefit to all.
This recent well-funded lobbyist effort by landowners to prevent us from making a living on the waterfront threatens all those who make a living on the sea. The real opposition to lease applications is coming from a few wealthy coastal landowners who do not want to see a working waterfront. These “not in my backyard” folks and their highly paid consultants and lawyers pressure legislators to radically change the rules and regulations that apply to aquaculture. Those rules and regulations are the product of 40 years of public discussion and legislative deliberation. Maine’s aquaculture leasing and environmental monitoring laws are the gold standard; delegations of fishermen, regulators and politicians often visit Maine from other states and countries to see how we manage the aquaculture sector.
Maine’s working waterfronts are facing serious challenges. Currently, Maine sea farmers lease about 1,600 acres out of the 3.5 million total acres making up state waters. Most of these are not even small businesses — they’re microscopic, owner-operator farms. Many are operated by people who fish and operate an aquaculture farm. Offshore wind, right whales, booming real estate prices and the rapid gentrification of Maine’s coastal communities are all making working waterfront communities, whether they are fishermen, boatbuilders, tour operators or sea farmers, feel like their livelihoods are being threatened by special interest groups that don’t care about Maine or Mainers.
Fortunately, this attempt to threaten the livelihoods of our fishermen and aquaculture producers isn’t shared by most. Not everyone opposes getting up before dawn to work on the water or truck moving seafood to market or the color of a boat or its buoy in the water. For most, this is what makes Maine a place we call home, where we can live and work together. We ask legislators to stand up for those who make a living on the sea.
Sebastian Belle is executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.