HARPSWELL — A short line of black floating tubes comes into view rounding Hopkins Island in Cundy’s Harbor. While they’re large enough for passing boaters and fishermen to spot, they don’t rise out of the water much higher than a lobster buoy. This is one of Peter Rand’s aquaculture leases.

He’s among the hundreds in Maine getting involved in the burgeoning aquaculture industry that has pumped millions into the state’s economy, but is under fire from lobstermen who compete for the same fishing grounds and homeowners who don’t want to see aquaculture sites from their waterfront properties.

With the situation coming to a head,  the Department of Marine Resources began the process at a meeting Wednesday of examining whether it should amend its rules to limit the size and location of aquaculture lease sites.

In March, the Department of Marine Resources received a petition with 189 signatures seeking an immediate moratorium on aquaculture leases larger than 10 acres. The petition also sought to create a new rule requiring that regulators consider alternate locations before approving aquaculture leases.

The petition triggered a rule-making process that began with Wednesday’s hearing.

In 2017, Maine aquaculture brought in 2.8 million pounds of oysters – a nearly fivefold increase since 2011 – and had an estimated $13.6 million economic impact.

That number is dwarfed by the landings value of Maine’s most famous shellfish – lobsters. Maine lobster landings were valued at a $484 million in 2018.

Still, the rapid growth of Maine oysters makes it a force to be reckoned with, and its value already has eclipsed other popular fisheries along Maine’s coast, including groundfish, blue mussels and scallops.

But as the popularity and sustainability of aquaculture continue to rise along the coastline, so does controversy. Tempers have flared around a proposed 40-acre oyster farm in Maquoit Bay, with a coalition of waterfront property owners and lobstermen putting big money behind efforts to stymie the development. Other proposals, such as expanding an aquaculture farm in Kittery to 3.67 acres, also have faced resistance.

That opposition came to a head in March when a group known as Save Maquoit Bay submitted 189-signature petition to the DMR asking them to include a new decision criteria requiring the department to consider whether there are any other locations near a proposed lease site that could “accommodate the proposed activities while interfering less with existing and surrounding uses of an area,” according to the department.

“We support aquaculture when it is good for all parties,” Paul Dioli, a member of Save Maquoit Bay, said in a news release. “With more and more aquaculture leases flooding in, the challenge is to build an aquaculture industry that coexists and does not compete with lobstering. Lobstermen we have talked to around the state are concerned their industry is being overlooked and hurt economically.”

“We need to seriously consider how we site these leases so aquaculture can grow, but not at the expense of the $500 million dollar lobster industry,” lobsterman John Powers said after the department agreed to host the hearing.

According to the request, the changes would allow the department to “review all aquaculture projects with a critical eye to what it means to all who use and make their living on the water.” They urged the department to “revise the outdated lease criteria and take a more holistic approach to the future of Maine’s Coastline.”

The group also asked for an immediate moratorium on all pending lease applications greater than 10 acres – the maximum lease area a person can apply for is 100 acres. They requested that the proposed rule be retroactive, so it would still apply to the application in Maquoit Bay.

“We are concerned that aquaculture leases, especially large leases that are attractive to out of state investors will basically eat up the bottom of the ocean floor. We are seeing more and more large leases in the water,” said Julie Eaton, secretary and treasurer of the Maine Lobstermen’s Union.

But Dan Devereaux, co-owner of Mere Point Oyster Co. and Brunswick’s harbor master, said the proposed rule changes would only “handicap the aquaculture industry moving forward” and is a disservice not only to the industry, but to coastal Maine and the working waterfront.

Requiring the DMR to look into alternate locations for sites would only “pump the brakes on a system that is already going slower than it should,” he said, especially given that oyster farmers choose their sites because they are familiar with the waters.

The oyster industry is “fitting in as our other resources are dwindling,” Devereaux said, adding that as coastal communities and local lobstermen try to combat warming waters, ocean acidification and invasive species, aquaculture is one way to prevent a future of “less work and more play on the water.”

Much of the conversation around local lease battles boils down to the impact of an aquaculture business versus the interests of coastal property owners and fishermen. That characterization, however, distorts the reality that the aquaculture farms are simply the most visible facets of an entire oyster economy that has grown up along Maine’s working waterfront.

THE VALUE OF MAINE OYSTERS

The value of Maine oysters has skyrocketed as oyster farms have sprung up in recent years. According to landings data from the DMR, in 2011, a total of 603,415 pounds of oyster were brought in. By 2017, oyster farmers were hauling in more than four times that number, bringing in nearly 2.8 million pounds.

That growth spurt appeared to taper off in 2018 with 2,762,941 pounds – 33,276 pounds under the previous year – but the total value of the fishery has continued to increase.

From 2004 to 2011, the total value of Maine’s oyster fishery fluctuated between $1 million to $2 million annually. In 2018, Maine’s total oyster landings were valued at a record $7.2 million.

That figure refers only to the value of the oysters landed. When taking into account all the underlying businesses that support and rely on the oyster harvest, its economic impact would nearly double to $13.6 million in 2018, said Chris Davis, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center.

“That’s looking at any processing, margins on wholesalers and distributors, margins on retailers and supply chain,” Davis said.

In order to meet demand, a 2016 analysis published by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute called for the total amount of acreage devoted to shellfish aquaculture to essentially double by 2030. While that’s a significant push, under those projections shellfish aquaculture would use just 0.1 percent of the state’s coastal waters. In 2016, shellfish leases covered 0.06 percent of the states coastal waters.

That analysis projected that Maine oyster production will almost triple by 2030. A higher estimate shows production nearly quadrupling. For that to happen, the amount of Maine’s coastal waters being devoted to aquaculture needs to increase substantially.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Rand’s family has owned Hopkins Island and nearby mainland property for generations, but until recently the surrounding waters were mostly empty. Over the past few years, the floating black tubes cropped up in a few locations around the island and farther out in the harbor as he pursued his dream of an oyster farm, which he hopes will allow him to bring about 100,000 oysters to market annually.

Rand said he’s noticed that applying for aquaculture licenses has grown more difficult in recent years, in part, he suspects, due to pressure from the controversies surrounding projects like the one in Maquoit Bay.

“Interestingly, it was very easy at first, but I noticed with the last two that I had here there was a little more to it,” he said.

For the most part, opponents of projects like the one proposed in Maquoit Bay have emphasized that their opposition is to large-scale operations, not the smaller Limited Purpose Aquaculture licenses (LPAs) like Rand’s. LPAs are by definition small scale operations, limited to just 400 square feet, and have to be renewed annually. Standard leases, like the one being pursued in Maquoit Bay, can be granted for up to 20 years and 100 acres, although in Maquoit Bay the 40-acre lease application is for 10 years and owners Devereaux and Doug Niven whittled down their active space to about 28 acres and increased the size of the navigable corridors in an attempt to mollify the opposition.

Opponents have labeled such projects “factories” on the water. But according to Davis, larger oyster farms are exactly what is necessary for continued growth.

The DMR approved an average of 17 new leases a year in the past five years, compared to six leases approved a year on average from 2009 to 2013.

“The LPAs have exploded, as we know. But that only represents 1 percent of the growing ground. It’s 6 acres out of close to 700 acres of shellfish. It’s really a tiny percentage in terms of production since each one is only 400 square feet,” Davis said.

The real growth, said Davis, will be when the current LPAs expand and the owners apply for standard leases, like the one being sought by Mere Point Oyster Company in Maquoit Bay.

“That’s where we’re going to see the real growth,” he said. “There’s only so much you can produce on an LPA.”

Restaurants, especially in Portland, have become increasingly interested in featuring Maine oysters prominently on their menus. In just the past few years, two establishments have popped up specifically to cater to the growing demand for oysters on the half shell in Portland. Rand said he sells to both The Shop and The Maine Oyster Company, both of which specialize in serving up oysters to locals and tourists alike.

While building up a strong local market for fresh oysters is important for many oyster farmers, one of the bigger goals is to grow out-of-state demand for Maine oysters. The 2016 Maine Farmed Shellfish Market Analysis notes that its best estimate for the continued growth of Maine’s oyster industry depends on expanding the reach of Maine oysters to large out-of-state markets.

A major part of that process will be building Maine oysters’ brand. Just like Maine lobsters, Maine oysters will need to develop a brand as a high-quality product, superior to oysters farmed further south.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute analysis notes that Maine oysters should command a high price even with an increase in supply, due largely to the perceived high quality of Maine’s cold-water oysters.

“They are the best oysters out there,” Rand said. “They’re terrific. There’s just a worldwide market potential for them.”

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