Moderated by Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, a panel of fishermen discuss the challenges and joys of their craft. From left, are Vitelli, Dan Harrington, Lawrence Pye and Ray Tremblay. (Contributed image)

HARPSWELL — With aquaculture set to play an ever-larger role in Midcoast communities, some lawmakers believe that the Legislature needs to be more involved in shepherding the industry.

Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, has submitted a bill that would create an aquaculture task force to oversee the burgeoning business and introduce legislation to regulate it.

“It started with: Let’s make sure we have a vision for aquaculture. Where is it now? Where is it going? Where other fisheries are declining, this is an alternative,” said McCreight.

Faced with growing public interest in aquaculture and a handful of controversial projects stretching along the coast, McCreight and Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, put together a small group of experts on coastal issues to determine what issues the legislature should tackle.

“There’s a lot going on, and a lot of opinions about it,” said McCreight. “So the idea was let’s look at what’s going on with aquaculture. … We put together a group of a couple harbormasters, the Casco Bay Baykeeper, somebody from DEP and somebody from DMR to talk about some of the issues that are related.”

“We’ve been having conversations with people on the local level,” said Vitelli. “But there’s also been a broader conversation that’s taking place because while we’re having some localized challenges or conflicts around aquaculture it’s not unique to our area. It’s up and down the coast.”

“Aquaculture is an important emerging industry, and it allows are fisheries to diversify, given the kinds of stresses that have been put on our coastal marine resources through climate change largely,” said Vitelli.

Coastal communities have had varied reactions to the increased presence of aquaculture in Maine waters. In Brunswick, some residents have been up in arms over a proposed 40-acre oyster farm in Maquoit Bay. The fight over that aquaculture stretched over three marathon Department of Marine Resources meetings in Brunswick.

Oyster aquaculture alone produced $6 million in 2016, up from just over $1 million in 2005, according to the Department of Marine Resources. The total harvest value of aquaculture in Maine produced more than $82 million in 2016. That number includes the harvest value of mussels, cod, oysters, quahogs, urchins, scallops and algae that are produced via aquaculture.

The University of Maine’s Maine Aquaculture Economic Impact Report further highlights the growth of the industry in Maine. According to that 2017 report, aquaculture generates a statewide annual economic contribution of $137.6 million in sales. It also sustains 1,078 jobs.

The report also indicates that the sector is growing, and those working in aquaculture are optimistic about the future — 24 percent of respondents started their businesses in the two years prior to the report, and another 21 percent started in the three years before that.

Other communities have embraced aquaculture with little fanfare. In Georgetown, some traditional fishermen have taken up a joint aquaculture venture. They found that they were struggling to support themselves in traditional maritime industries like clamming or worming, so they launched an oyster farm to help make up their lost incomes.

“Where other fisheries are declining, this is an alternative,” said McCreight.

That story is likely familiar to many Midcoast fishermen, who have struggled to find enough work along the coast as the effects of climate change impact Maine fisheries. Last year, a panel of fishermen hosted by Vitelli described the struggles they face making a sustainable income.

The initial vision is for a task force made up of legislators, experts, industry representatives and other stakeholders who could make sure aquaculture develops productively without harming other Maine fisheries, said McCreight. The task force would meet at least six times a year and could recommend legislation to lawmakers looking to regulate the industry.

Both McCreight and Vitelli sit on the legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, which McCreight cochairs. They’ll both be part of the discussion as the legislature debates the merits of an aquaculture task force bill as well as several other aquaculture-related bills.

“We are both of us very supportive of aquaculture,” said Vitelli. “But we want it to be done in a way that, to the extent possible, best serves the community and the industry and the people engaged in the industry.”

If enough other lawmakers agree with the idea of the task force and it becomes law, it could be up and running as early as this summer.

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