Editorial: Next big thing

Aquaculture, these days, seems to be everywhere you look.

It comes up in public notices of scoping sessions and hearings on the latest small or large new venture, at the Maine Fisherman’s Forum, in grants for pilot projects and in coaching offered by nonprofits. Aquaculture has been hailed as the next big thing with the potential to save Maine’s coastal economy in the face of a changing climate.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is charged with deciding whether to grant each lease, weighing the relevant public input. DMR does not do marketing or promotion work on behalf of aquaculture, as a spokesman pointed out in a 2016 letter to the editor in this paper. “Aquaculture is the only commercial fishing industry the department is statutorily prohibited from promoting,” he wrote.

The larger oyster and mussel farms around Mount Desert Island drew significant opposition, mostly from shorefront property owners, some of whom are also recreational users of the bays and harbors where the farms are sited. But municipal officials, harbormasters and lobstermen have strongly supported the growth of aquaculture here. And we have several local entrepreneurs who are both lobstermen and oyster farmers.

So it was a bit of a head-scratcher when a press conference was called last week at the State House asking for a moratorium on large, new aquaculture leases. The petition grew out of opposition to a large pending lease in Casco Bay, where apparently conflict between aquaculture area and fishing bottom is more of an issue than it is here.

But according to information distributed by the group, the petition was signed by — among many others — residents of Bar Harbor, Tremont, Islesford and Swan’s Island, and other Hancock County towns. Most of the signatures were gathered at the Fisherman’s Forum, spokesperson Crystal Canney said.

It’s a fair bet that whenever a single industry or process is hailed as the solution to every problem, it’s being overestimated or over-relied on.

Many of the arguments against specific aquaculture leases have been thin or specious, to be sure. But perhaps this petition provides an opportunity to step back a bit from the excitement, however warranted it may be, and assess whether the current growth rate of our aquaculture industry is sustainable.

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