SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s not easy to find the Portland Street Pier, but it’s there, right off Front Street, wedged among the Sunset Marina, the Saltwater Grille restaurant and a couple of massive green fuel tanks owned by the Portland Pipe Line Corp.
There’s no sign trumpeting its location, even though it’s one of South Portland’s prime waterfront assets. The weathered gray structure at the edge of Portland Harbor is empty and icy quiet this time of year, when the docks have been pulled from the water and the nine lobstermen who use the facility from spring through fall keep their fishing boats elsewhere.
City officials are trying to change that. They’re taking steps to improve and expand the long-neglected municipal pier in the hope of turning it into an incubator for aquaculture enterprises in Casco Bay. To prove that they’re heading in the right direction, they point to the ongoing development of about 10 new aquaculture leases in the region, which could double the number of commercial operations growing mussels, oysters, scallops or seaweed in the nutrient-rich waters off Maine’s largest metropolitan center.
“It’s the right thing to do at the right time,” said City Councilor Claude Morgan, who lives near the pier. “We think there’s immediate demand for this kind of support for aquaculture in Maine. It’s an opportunity to show you can have a working waterfront, do it sustainably and have it become a force for economic growth in the community.”
Morgan is pushing a proposal that would add six to eight berths at the pier in the next year or so in the form of floating docks. It would be a first step toward possibly enlarging and dredging the pier over the next few years so it could withstand destructive winter storms and be accessible at all tides. Both conditions are necessary to support year-round aquaculture and commercial fishing.
Assistant City Manager Josh Reny plans to deliver a basic design and cost estimate for the additional berths to the City Council in the next few weeks. Anything more significant, such as expanding the pier or dredging existing shallow berths, would require a feasibility study, including a professional survey and cost-benefit analysis, and a master plan, if it gets that far.
Expanding the pier could cost $500,000 to $2 million, by some estimates. City officials are also talking about joining a local effort to dredge sediment-bound private and municipal piers in Portland and South Portland that could add to the expense.
If the larger pier project were approved, the city could tap state grants and other funds earmarked for economic development, Reny said.
“It’s not going to be cheap, so we need to understand what the return on investment might be and whether there’s sufficient demand,” Reny said. “There isn’t a facility in the harbor that’s geared toward aquaculture right now, so there’s support for it generally.”
AQUACULTURE IS GROWING
Aquaculture in Casco Bay is on the verge of significant growth, according to the state Department of Marine Resources, which oversees 110 aquaculture leases covering 1,200 acres along the Maine coast, including Atlantic salmon that’s farmed Down East.
There are 11 active aquaculture leases in Casco Bay – nine for shellfish and two for seaweed, said Jon Lewis, director of Maine’s aquaculture program. In addition, there are two pending lease applications and eight or nine lease proposals that are being developed, Lewis said.
“There is tremendous opportunity for aquaculture in Maine,” he said. “Having a municipality (such as South Portland) support aquaculture would be huge.”
The pending aquaculture operations face significant hurdles, Lewis said, starting with getting state and federal approvals. The lengthy vetting process includes ensuring that the shoreline or floating farms won’t interfere with navigation routes and other existing uses.
Finding adequate and affordable waterfront access is a concern for many aquaculture operations, Lewis said, especially because they need space for their trucks, gear, cold storage and processing activities. But the demand for farm-raised shellfish has clearly increased in recent years as more consumers seek locally grown and sustainably harvested products.
“In the last five years, everybody seems to be jumping on it,” he said.
Lewis’ assessment is backed by a study released in October by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
In 2015, Maine aquaculture operations harvested $6.5 million worth of shellfish – about 25 percent of Maine’s $24 million overall shellfish harvest and a fraction of the $700 million in oysters, mussels and scallops harvested in the United States, according to the Maine Farmed Shellfish Market Analysis. Researchers determined that the total economic benefit of Maine shellfish aquaculture that year was as high as $15 million.
Researchers also concluded that Maine’s farmed shellfish capacity – about 600 leased acres with another 75 or so in the lease application process at the time of the study – “is not sufficient to meet the projected demand.”
Maine needs an additional 550 to 600 acres of shellfish aquaculture by 2030, including 480 new acres of oysters and 90 new acres of mussels cultivated on ropes hanging from rafts. That’s about 35 to 40 additional acres annually through 2030. The research institute report concluded that the industry has the potential to quadruple its value to $30 million by 2030.
Separately, a new economic development group called FocusMaine has identified aquaculture as one of three industries where Maine could make investments that would produce dramatic returns for the state’s economy.
CLOSE TO MARKET DEMAND
Peter Stocks, a South Portland resident who farms blue mussels in Casco Bay, has experienced the growing demand for his product and is eager to see the city provide a platform for others to join him in friendly competition.
A former corporate lawyer, Stocks launched the Calendar Island Mussel Co. in 2011, starting with a few rope rafts floating on a couple of acres in the middle of the bay. He expanded his lease holdings to 7 acres last year, hoping to meet the growing market for mussels he ships to Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. He has six rafts now, with ropes of the shellfish dangling into the deep. He plans to add six rafts this spring and six more next year.
“The Maine brand in seafood is very well-recognized and marketable around the world,” Stocks said. “We’re within a 24-hour drive of 100 million people. The potential for aquaculture here is only getting stronger with the growing interest in farm-to-table produce and sustainability.”
Stocks said he has four full-time and two part-time employees, and he expects to hire more in the future. He has a long-term lease on space at Deake’s Wharf off Commercial Street in Portland and regularly works out of Handy Boat Marina in Falmouth, but he admits that he’d rather have his base of operations near where he lives.
Stocks is a member of the city’s Economic Development Committee, which supports the pier project for a variety of reasons. Most notably, promoting development of underused waterfront property is a goal identified in the city’s Economic Development Plan adopted last year.
“The pier is a public asset that is not being used nearly to its capacity,” committee Chairman Ross Little wrote in a recent letter to Mayor Patti Smith and the City Council.
“It could be supporting South Portland and regional businesses and generating more revenue for the city,” Little wrote. “Renovation and expansion of the pier, and upgrading (its) building, would support the expansion of aquaculture in our region.”
Committee members also agreed that the pier could “generate many times the annual revenue it now collects.”
Lobstermen and other tenants pay $1,250 per year for a seasonal berth at the pier, which is substantially cheaper than other Portland Harbor piers that provide year-round access and other services, city officials said.
PIER IMPROVEMENTS NEEDED
Last year the city collected $20,527 in rental fees for slips and the seasonal building on the pier, and it spent more than $21,000 to fix wooden decking, replace the metal ramp and do other repairs, according to a recent report from Kevin Adams, the city’s director of parks, recreation and waterfront facilities.
Twelve of 16 berths were used last year: 11 were leased, one was occupied by the city’s fire boat, two were vacant and two are too shallow to be leased because of sediment. Parks employees install and remove the floating docks each year, with help from firefighters.
The seasonal building on the pier is currently unleased and in need of improvements and repairs, as are the pier and the sea wall beneath it, Adams noted.
Lobstermen and other commercial fishermen would still be welcomed at the pier, city officials said, but slip fees would likely increase if the city upgraded the facility for year-round use.
“It could be good. Depends on what they do,” said Rick Roberts, a lobsterman from Scarborough who has kept his boat at the Portland Street Pier for more than 30 years.
Roberts and fellow lobsterman Rick Sullivan said they’ve been spoiled, having the run of the pier for decades. They also said the city has neglected the facility and failed to provide basic maintenance and services to leaseholders. Both wondered how the city would accommodate increased parking and activity on the site.
“I’m glad somebody’s trying to do something,” Roberts said.
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:
Correction: This story was revised at 11:10 a.m., Jan. 30, 2017, to remove a reference to residents’ views being part of the vetting process for aquaculture leases.