From oyster farms to cultivated seaweed and farm-raised salmon, aquaculture is often described as essential to the economic future of Maine’s fisheries in the face of a changing ecosystem. Warming waters from climate change are pushing lobster farther Down East and have shut down the shrimp fishery, and threats such as ocean acidification and invasive green crabs are harming Maine’s natural fisheries.

But opposition to several proposed projects suggests the hardest part of getting into aquaculture might be getting past the neighbors. All along the coast, neighbors argue that pending aquaculture ventures will create too much noise, use too much energy, attract too many birds and obstruct their opportunities for boating or lobstering. One questioned whether an oyster farm would make it hard for deer to swim from one point of land to another.

In Belfast, abutters to the land where Nordic Aquafarms hopes to put in a giant land-based farm to raise salmon have filed a lawsuit against the city, which they say hastily and secretly approved a zoning change the company needed to move forward.

In Brunswick, opponents of a proposed 40-acre oyster farm have hired not just attorneys, but a public relations expert, Crystal Canney, in the hopes of persuading the Department of Marine Resources not to approve the lease.

Meanwhile in Kittery, so many people showed up for an initial public hearing in September on a proposed 4-acre oyster farm that the Department of Marine Resources had to reschedule it; the space booked wasn’t big enough. Over 125 people turned out for that rescheduled meeting. Now landowners who overlook Spinney Creek, a 127-acre salt pond bordered by both Kittery and Eliot, that drained with the tides until a tide gate was installed in 1938, have come up with an argument based on ownership of mudflats that is forcing Department of Marine Resources to take a new look at the project.

“People say, ‘Oh it is just because it is in your backyard,’ ” said Eliot resident Mike Dowling, who is opposing Spinney Creek Shellfish’s plan to expand a several-year-old experimental oyster farming lease. “Nobody is against aquaculture here. We have been living peacefully with this for years, since they put them in in 2014. We are saying, where does this end?”

He imagines a future where Tom and Lori Howell, the owners of Spinney Creek Shellfish, could apply for an even bigger lease, even 100 acres (that’s the maximum the state of Maine allows, and given the size of Spinney Creek, highly unlikely). The Howells declined to comment for this story. Dowling worries that his ability to swim or kayak or water ski or even ice skate on the creek his home looks out on would be impaired.

“There needs to be some oversight,” Dowling added. “This is just the wrong location.”

Dan Devereaux, co-owner with Doug Niven of Mere Point Oyster Company, heads out with his son Jesse, 20, and stepdaughter Savanna Kay, 23, to check buoy markers in the bay. “We’re doing this for our community, our family and for the environment,” he says.

This is an oft-used phrase around aquaculture arguments. Wrong location. Another is “it’s just too big.” Are the politics of NIMBYism, aka the “not in my backyard” mentality, slowing the growth of Maine’s aquaculture enterprises? In an April 2018 report on aquaculture opportunities on Massachusetts’ southern coast, Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises Inc. described NIMBYism as one of the great challenges faced by would-be fish and shellfish farmers. Included in the report is the story of how actor James Spader, protesting a half-acre oyster farm in sight of his family home in Marion, Massachusetts, helped sink the project. Spader reportedly said he didn’t want to look at a “pasture of oysters.”

USING THEIR WORDS

In Maine, neighbors with objections are certainly slowing aquaculture projects, with money, passion and their own persuasive set of buzzwords.

What Nordic Aquafarm is proposing is an “industrial monoculture,” which longtime Belfast resident Ellie Daniels, who filed the suit against the city, is vehemently opposed to.

“This is no different from a hog farm in the South,” Daniels said.

“When people say NIMBY, I say ‘Squirrel!’ ” said Paul Dioli, making reference to a joke about an easily distracted dog in the Pixar movie “Up.” Dioli is one of the more vocal opponents of Mere Point Oyster’s plan to expand in Maquoit Bay. He’s opposed to “industrial farming,” which is how he sees the proposed 40-acre oyster farm.

By comparison, Crystal Spring Farm, a family-run diversified farm in Brunswick owned by the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, is 321 acres. But a sea or fish farm is very different from a farm with a barn, livestock and some vegetables. Dioli, whose Portland-based company Schlotterbeck & Foss is well known for both its sauces and success, believes Mere Point Oysters has a flawed business plan. Why does he get to have a say in that plan?

“They are privatizing public waters,” Dioli said. “Because they are taking it away from me, I do get a say.”

These are Mainers fluent in the vocabulary of Michael Pollan. They are eager to protect the ecoystems they live within, throwing out objections to established science around oyster farming, including suggesting that oysters might pose harm to horseshoe crabs or eelgrass while producing excrement. At a November hearing in Brunswick, Jon Lewis, the director of the Department of Marine Resources’ aquaculture program, struggled to articulate why that isn’t a problem. Anyone who doesn’t keep their cages clean ends up with dead oysters and no profits. He’s been at this 21 years, he said, and he’s encountered only one oyster farmer with dirty cages.

“We have not seen buildup of, for lack of a better term, oyster ‘poop,’ ” Lewis said.

Although these three projects are very different in scope, in all situations, opponents decry the lack of transparency from those behind them, whether from the applicant, the state agencies in charge of permitting them or city government.

A VIEW OF ONE’S OWN

They’re not happy about what they can see either. Some of these opponents have million-dollar views, and while no Maine calendar is complete without a picture of a lobster boat, oyster cages floating on black plastic pontoons are distinctly less photogenic. “They look like floating tires,” Dowling said of Spinney Creek’s oyster cages.

It’s hard to put an exact price tag on how they diminish a million-dollar view, but savvy opponents stay away from that anyway. The criteria the Department of Marine Resources take under consideration when considering approving aquaculture leases include the impact on abutters’ ability to navigate and recreate, or how it might impact another fishery, say, lobstering. Technically speaking, the departure does not take anyone’s view into account. Nor the diminishment of property values.

Lewis used to be a field biologist with the department, and three years ago he was put in charge of the program. There are currently nearly 40 pending applications for leases with the department, although some are for renewals, including leases held by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian company which raises mostly salmon in ocean pens in Maine.

“Suddenly 85 percent of my job is meetings,” Lewis said.

Those meetings don’t look easy. At a Nov. 19 Brunswick public hearing for Mere Point Oyster’s proposed lease, he faced questions about whether or not the dive he did on Maquoit Bay to survey the bottom covered enough territory to really reveal what the muddy bottom holds. Or whether he had looked hard enough for eelgrass before determining this was a reasonable place to put an oyster farm. But Lewis says he considers it a privilege to watch social dynamics play out in the hearing process.

“I think these arguments are going on all over the nation,” Lewis said. “Part of it is this tremendous cultural shift from harvesting wild product, where we have the romance of the sea and that nature is providing for us. That is a beautiful thing. But now there is the realization that those days are limited if not already gone, and that is a real social change.”

A GROWTH INDUSTRY

In the romance department, lobster is still king. It’s also Maine’s dominant harvest economically, with 76 percent of the state’s $569 million dollar fishing industry coming from lobster. Oysters, in comparison, brought in only 1.1 percent of the total value in 2016, just under $6 million. (In Massachusetts in 2017, oyster aquaculture generated $27 million in revenue). But oyster aquaculture is on the rise. Lewis said Maine has about 600 experimental farms and 125 mid- to larger-sized farms. “Lots of growth,” he said. In the last year, the number of experimental farms has almost doubled and about 30 percent more mid- to larger-sized farms came on line.

Since 2005, the amount of farm-raised oysters harvested in the state has gone from just under 2 million pieces annually to 8.8 million. The bulk of these (6.5 million) are still grown in the Damariscotta River, but Maine’s oyster farms are expanding geographically as well. It’s a much faster-growing sector than, say, blue mussels grown on ropes, which peaked in 2007 and, in 2016, was about a $2 million a year industry.

Salmon farming trumps all other aquaculture in terms of value, although the documentation is dated. The Department of Marine Resources stopped sharing specific data after 2010, citing the proprietary nature of the information (with Cooke Aquaculture holding most of the leases, this would give away their financials). But in 2010, Maine produced nearly 25 million pounds of farmed Atlantic salmon, at nine ocean-based sites, worth nearly $74 million dollars.

If the Belfast farm goes forward as planned, along with a less controversial Bucksport land-based project proposed by Whole Oceans, Maine’s salmon production would skyrocket. Nordic Aquafarms hopes to produce 66 million pounds annually, or about 8 percent of all salmon farmed in the United States. Whole Oceans is aiming eventually for 55 million pounds annually, said Richard Rotella, Bucksport’s economic development director.

Perhaps because the Whole Oceans project is on an industrial site, the location of the former Verso Mill, it’s seen far less local opposition than even the 4-acre oyster farm in Kittery. Rotella had spent the previous day with Whole Oceans as the company answered questions from three groups that had filled out comments during the process of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection reviewing its wastewater discharge permit. None of the people who asked for individual sessions with Whole Ocean were from Bucksport, Rotella said. Two were from Belfast.

Derek Devereaux, 22, and Savanna Kay check oysters in a cage off Mere Point in Brunswick. Their family’s Mere Point Oyster Company has proposed a 40-acre lease in Maquoit Bay.

Whole Oceans’ land-based salmon farm could bring up to 250 jobs to Bucksport, Rotella said. Far short of the 500 employees Verso had in its end days, or the 1,000 it had at its height, but for an economically depressed area, these would be welcome.

Land-based salmon farming, known as RAS in the industry because it operates on a recirculating aquaculture system, has drawn the initial support of such disparate political characters as Gov. Paul LePage and Sen. Angus King. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, the same organization that tells you to avoid eating cod caught by bottom trawls, even if it’s done in the Gulf of Maine, rates RAS as a best practice.

But a zoning change in Belfast, taking a 40-acre parcel formerly zoned for residential use to industrial to allow Nordic Aquafarms to build there, caught many residents by surprise. For Daniels, who owns the Green Store, a Belfast retail shop filled with environmentally friendly goods, it was clandestine and against the town’s comprehensive plan.

“It is not in the character of Belfast,” Daniels said.

She worries about the amount of water Nordic will require from Belfast’s water department. And where it will end up, with (treated) wastewater going into Penobsot Bay.

“It has never been done at this scale, and this is my problem with it,” Daniels said. The carbon footprint is “gigantic” she said. But what about the carbon footprint involved with Americans importing an estimated 95 percent of the salmon they eat?

“The planet is actually screaming for help,” Daniels said. “Why do we think we need to have a fish meal once a week?”

She and her wife, who are abutters to the Nordic Aquafarm site, filed suit against Belfast in July. The suit is in the discovery phase, she said. If the couple wins, Nordic “will be nowhere with the city,” she said. They’d have to start over, she said, fighting against a more informed public. “Because the zoning will be reversed.”

NOTHING NEW

Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, says these kind of intense arguments are nothing new in an industry that in Maine dates back to 1989. Even people who support aquaculture conceptually tend to balk at living next to it.

“If it is next door to them it takes on a very different connotation for them,” Belle said. “What you are seeing with Spinney Creek and Mere Point Oysters and Nordic Aquafarms is not a phenomenon.”

He sees it as a symptom of Maine’s changing coastal demographic, as more well-heeled people retire to Maine, often in scenic locations.

“You began to see these flips in coastal communities where more and more of the population has no historical ties to working waterfronts and no linkage to viewing the ocean as a place where people make a living,” Belle said. “It’s a social conflict, and it is almost a class conflict.”

Buying or building houses in beautiful places tend to include postcard views, and these in turn have long included fishing boats and, of course, the iconic image of a lobster boat.

“Aquaculture has become part of the working waterfront,” Belle said. “But when the blower starts at the hatchery and the gear is laid at the end of the dock and gets a little smelly, they are concerned about it. Because none of those things are what these people signed up for, even though they love the lobster boat bobbing in the sunset.”

He sees a lack of trust in Maine’s permitting process, which he sees as both sad and wrong. “A guy like Jon Lewis, who has been doing it for 15 years?” Belle said. Maine’s maximum aquaculture lease size of 100 acres is very small compared to other states, he said. Moreover, Maine has restrictions in place to prevent people from locking up lease space to sell later.

From Belle’s perspective, it’s highly likely that if these farms are approved, the people who live near them will come to be as fond of them as they are the lobster boats, or the diversified farm down the street. That’s the pattern he’s seen in the past anyway.

“That is the most interesting social thing about this,” he said. “Virtually nobody objects to the renewal of these leases.”

But in the meantime, there is the initial fight. There are the arguments, even over oyster farms that in the relative scheme of things are fairly small. Maine’s largest oyster farm at present is a farm in Trenton that encompasses two 25-acre leases. The man with that lease, Warren Pettegrow, fought long and hard for it. A big issue for his opponents was a fear that birds sitting on the oyster cages might impede air traffic in and out of the Bar Harbor airport nearby. With input from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Aviation Administration, saying research had shown such projects were not as attractive to wildlife as previously believed, the permit was allowed. Pettegrow only has 300 cages in the water now, according to Lewis (Pettgrow did not return requests for an interview).

Mark Wyman poses next to a sign he posted on his property to express his opposition to the Mere Point Oyster Company proposal. Wyman lives with his wife in a rebulit cottage that has been in his family for 52 years, and where they raised their two daughters.

With the fighting come lawyers. Belle said he expects some farmers would spend tens of thousands of dollars defending projects, even ones that are entirely within the scope of what is permissible in Maine.

“The sad thing about Mere Point, in particular, is that Dan has personally invested so much in that community over the years,” Belle said.

He’s referring to Dan Devereaux, who as Brunswick’s marine resources officer – and an oyster farmer – has come under intense fire from the opponents of the Mere Point Oyster Farm expansion. They accuse him of conflict of interest. And of being greedy. Devereaux counters that his duties as Brunswick law enforcement explicitly do not include oversight of aquaculture projects.

But he did get into oyster farming because of his day job. As he saw the impacts of climate change cutting into the incomes of Brunswick’s clam diggers, he sought to help them, including encouraging them to install clam farms in nets along Maquoit Bay’s mudflats. And as he educated himself, he was intrigued by oyster farming and ultimately began doing it with an experimental, or limited purpose, aquaculture lease (LPA).

He and Doug Niven decided to join forces when they realized that both had families who wanted lives on the working waterfront. Both families had dipped into the business with small leases (between the extended families, they have 26 of the 400 square-foot LPA leases). They picked the proposed spot because it was close to both their homes, good for oysters and, they say, bad for lobstering. (Local lobstermen who have joined forces with the neighbors disagree and told the Department of Marine Resources that, historically, this was a good area to drop traps, at least seasonally. At the Nov. 19 meeting, one of them, Tom Santaguida, said he had set traps on the site of the proposed farm as recently as October and “didn’t do it just because of this hearing.”)

Mere Point Oyster Farm’s owners sent a letter to neighbors in June, encouraging them to visit their operation and ask questions. It did not spell out plans for the expansion. That lack of transparency has led to some of the ill will, as well as concerns of impacts to navigation and the ecosystem. But Devereaux believes opponents are thinking primarily of the visual impacts.

“The fact of the matter is they don’t care about anything but their view,” Devereaux said.

Mere Point plans to grow the project over 10 years, he said, and has already conceded by shrinking the overall footprint of cages to 28 acres within the 40. They allowed for a 400-foot corridor to allow fishing vessels to pass through, or to drop traps in. Moreover, he says that the neighbors don’t understand what the farm entails. Good oyster farming requires space for circulation around the cages.

“If you take all of that gear and push it into the corner, the surface space would be an acre and a half,” Devereaux said.

He’s frustrated. But he’s not done fighting.

“Doug and I aren’t doing this so we can be 65 working on an oyster farm,” he said. “We’re doing this for our community, our family and for the environment.”

FORGIVE ME

Mark Wyman is the Mere Point resident who worries, just a little, about how a deer would make it across Maquoit Bay with a 40-acre oyster farm in the middle of it. He says he “kind of” feels bad for Niven and Devereaux.

“I hate for the fact that they would have to drive through the neighborhood and think that their neighbors think badly of them,” Wyman said.

As he passed Niven’s place the other day, he deliberately waved at Niven. “I made sure that he saw me,” Wyman said. “Harmony in community is more important to me than plastic buoys and oysters.”

But at the second crowded public hearing on Mere Point Oysters’ application to expand its farm – a third will be needed to handle the outcry – Wyman was in legal eagle mode.

“Does your employee’s safety matter to you?” he asked Charlie Wallace, the environmental engineer who Niven and Devereaux had hired to demonstrate to Wyman and his neighbors that a tumbler used to clean the future oyster crop would have minimal impact on the community. Wallace looked confused; Wyman was asking not about the potential noise, but about whether the person who conducted the noise study had been exposed to danger. The Department of Marine Resources staff tried to gently steer Wyman to move on from what one attorney referred to as a “wandering area of inquiry.”

Not that Wyman is a lawyer. He’s a retired hydro-engineer who worked for Central Maine Power. But his desire to stop this Maquoit Bay project had inspired interrogation methods halfway between Perry Mason and those you might have seen on “The Good Wife.” His passion had also caused him to have what he termed as “words” with Devereaux when they met at the hearing.

“I wanted to call Dan and tell him, ‘If I was a jerk, forgive me,’ ” Wyman said.

“I don’t have any problem with aquaculture,” he added. “I just don’t think this is a good place for it.”

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

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