HARPSWELL — The public will soon get a chance to learn more about aquaculture and the lease application process.

Jon Lewis, Aquaculture Program director for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, will discuss how the application process works, and the role the DMR and municipal officials, in a meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at Harpswell Community School. There will also be a comment period for residents and commercial fishermen.

Harbormaster Paul Plummer said he reached out to DMR in March and asked for the public forum after an increase in the number of aquaculture applications.

“I have had at least 10 applications come across my desk so far this year,” Plummer said. He would not provide the number of applications the town received in same period last year. 

Eight of the 10 applications were for limited purpose aquaculture in and around Harpswell, including sites around Snow Island and Middle Bay. The other two were experimental leases.

According to Plummer, three of those LPAs are in Middle Bay and have met resistance from commercial fishermen.

“Any LPA that tries to go up in Middle Bay is getting pushback from commercial fishermen because they conduct business out there already,” Plummer said.

“With the increase of these applications comes an increased concern from a lot of our citizens in the community who might not know exactly what aquaculture is,” said Plummer. “Fishermen get concerned and some people might look out their window and all of a sudden see aquaculture equipment and panic. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Plummer said the education process includes knowing what is involved during the application process.

“There are some people who think the harbormaster is the ultimate decider on which applications are approved, and that simply isn’t true,” he said.

The state’s aquaculture evaluation process first requires the applicant to attend a pre-application meeting with DMR staff and the harbormaster, or a municipal officer of the municipality in which the proposed lease is located.

According to state law, the local harbormaster needs to sign off on the application, stating the proposal will not unreasonably impede with safe navigation; unreasonably interfere with fishing or other uses of the area, and or interfere with ingress and egress near riparian areas. 

“For an LPA, the signature provides important verification from an official with local knowledge that standards specified in rule are met,” DMR Director of Communications Jeff Nichols said April 30.

However, Nichols said, in some cases, applications can be approved without the harbormaster’s approval. 

Nichols said even though a signature is needed on applications, the department can approve the application if the DMR “determines that the signature was withheld without basis if the application meets the criteria outlined in rules.”

If the harbormaster does not sign off on an application, or if five or more concerned residents submit written complaints about the proposed application to the DMR, the department can hold a hearing on the matter. 

There is no set time for an application to be approved or denied. It depends on what type of application is submitted and the size of the proposed site, according to Nichols. 

He added that anyone who thinks changes should be made to the application processes and rules can petition the DMR.

“The regulatory requirement for verification by harbormasters recognizes their unique local knowledge,” Nichols said. “Depending on the application, verification might require a review of the proposed site that, while potentially time-consuming, is the most effective way to verify that the license activities.”

But Plummer said the application process “puts a burden on municipalities and harbormasters.” Although the DMR does not do site reviews on LPAs, he said most harbormasters conduct their own site checks before signing off on applications as a standard for “best practices.”

Plummer said the harbormasters in neighboring Yarmouth and Freeport do site reviews on LPAs, too. 

“Maybe back in the ’90s the process the DMR used worked, but it does not work these days when harbormasters are doing their own due diligence by conducting site reviews of these LPAs and carefully looking at these applications,” Plummer said.

Patti McDonald can be reached at 780-9123 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @pmcdonaldme

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