BRUNSWICK — I have spent most of my life on the water employed in the commercial fishing industry, and so have generations of family and close friends. Lobstermen are a tight-knit group of men and women who work hard in a dangerous occupation – which, depending on the year, can have unpredictable rewards. We are an industry that is part of Maine’s iconic brand – the Maine lobster. The best in the world. A nearly $500 million-per-year industry.

Right now, what started as an effort to bring balance with a growing industry, aquaculture, has gotten ugly fast. I lobster in inner and outer Casco Bay. Last year we learned about an application to build a 40-acre oyster farm in rich fishing grounds in Maquoit Bay that I, along with more than a dozen lobstermen, have been fishing for decades. After we learned about it, we started attending the Department of Marine Resources hearings on the proposal and testifying to keep this section of the bay open to everyone.

Since this started, the Maine Aquaculture Association has intimated to legislators that we lobstermen are being paid for our efforts to be engaged with this process. That is not only completely untrue but also highly offensive and unhelpful, and it cuts to the heart of what we are trying to do – which is to work in cooperation with aquaculture. Not only are we not being paid, we have spent a lot of uncompensated time and own expense to simply to try to engage in this process.

I get a Department of Marine Resources notification every time someone applies for an aquaculture lease. What I typically now do is contact the applicants in the area I fish. I have spoken with some applicants who didn’t have a lot of experience and simply didn’t know that the spot they selected might cause conflict with established fisheries. So far, in two situations, we lobstermen agreed to work with them to help find a site that eliminates conflict and also provides them with what they need. With another aquaculture applicant, when I was called, I said that it was a good area for them because it wasn’t heavily fished. This is what this effort is all about from the lobstermen’s perspective – finding a workable solution.

Part of that solution has to be how DMR will address the transferability of aquaculture leases. Aquaculture is popular and growing – more than 46 aquaculture leases are currently pending. When someone gets a lease, they can transfer/sell it, and the larger the lease, the more attractive it is to larger out-of-state corporations.

We are literally selling our ocean.  Everyone who fishes it, swims in it, boats on it has just lost a right they have had in favor of a business deal with the government. A side note: Lobstermen cannot sell their licenses, because it is against the law – but in aquaculture, a lease may be sold.

We urge the Department of Marine Resources to look at a better way to site these locations for aquaculture with very significant input from the commercial fishing community. The method for engaging in this process should not create a sudden burden on commercial fishermen. The burden should be placed on the state and the aquaculture applicant. Creating a healthy co-existence is our goal, not a competitive environment.

We urge DMR to consider developing across-the-board and consistent licensing policy by requiring the return of aquaculture leases to the state of Maine (just like lobster licenses must be) if someone doesn’t wants to hold them any longer, instead of selling our ocean to the highest bidder in order to let a new person in.

Finally, we urge the Maine Aquaculture Association to do some fact checking, to work with lobster fishermen and to avoid putting any further wedge between a very large and longtime, traditional fishing industry and a small but growing one.

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