Viewpoint: Working waterfront diversity is needed  

By Des FitzGerald 

A friend just sent me a copy of a May opinion piece written by Jerilyn Bowers that deserves a response (Standing up for working waterfront doesn’t mean supporting industrial-scale aquaculture, Islander, May 6). In the piece, the author suggests that marine aquaculture in Maine is an unfettered industry and that the state has given both foreign and domestic corporations the green light to come to Maine and lease aquaculture farm sites with no regard to proper procedures. The admonition to “get the record straight” then uses numbers that in no way represent the facts on the water. 

Yes, Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) did grant 200-plus leases in 2020, but it’s important to know that there are three types of aquaculture leases. The most common by far is the LPA, which awards 400-square-feet in total to the lease holder. The most critical number that reveals the true nature of marine aquaculture growth in Maine is that DMR, over the last 11 years, has averaged 32 acres per year of aquaculture leases, of any kind, to Maine water farmers. That is a vanishingly small number and a far cry from the image of “large corporate entities” hungrily gobbling up our coast. 

If one takes all of the current aquaculture leases for finfish, shellfish and sea vegetables off our coast, they add up to a total of just 1,681 acres. That total footprint, which fits easily onto the acreage of the Bangor Airport, is a pittance when measured against the 3 million +/- acres of ocean within Maine’s 3-mile state limit. As another point of reference, one farm alone, operating in Prince Edward Island, has leases totaling 4,300 acres in which to grow its mussels. One farm! 

A number of private organizations, educational institutions and state departments have worked hard to give our marine farmers the tools to be successful on Maine’s ocean, but the reality is that policy makers in Augusta have been unwilling to actually fund DMR to a level that allows enterprising aquaculturists the timely leases they need to get to some form of commercial scale. The reason is simple. No Augusta decision maker wants to raise the ire of the lobster industry that dominates our coastal fishery. Not only do lobsters rule our coast but they are sadly the only species left in the Gulf of Maine of commercial relevance. We have literally harvested and eaten everything else. 

With no fallback fishery should lobster populations falter or fail, we have a situation where lobstermen and women are rightly terrified of any potential threat to their livelihoods. The specter of climate change, offshore wind and right whales has created a reactionary counterforce to marine aquaculture that inflates the negatives and masks the fact that aquaculture can offer yet another way to make a living on the water, if given a chance. 

Maine, its commercial fishermen and our policy makers need to begin to think about a more diverse coastal working waterfront where fishermen can choose to also become water farmers and residents have diverse opportunities to make a living on our coast.  

Des FitzGerald lives in Rockport. 

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