BRUNSWICK — The Department of Marine Resources rejected a petition to change the criteria for aquaculture lease applications on the basis that the request was “not realistic,” “arbitrary” and could have a “perverse outcome” for some applicants.

Meanwhile, the company pitching a 40-acre oyster aquaculture lease on Maquoit Bay continues to await the department’s decision on its application, which is now two months overdue.

A group known as Save Maquoit Bay, composed of coastal property owners, lobstermen and fishermen, submitted a 189-signature petition asking officials to include a stipulation requiring the department to consider whether any other locations near a proposed lease site could “accommodate the proposed activities while interfering less with existing and surrounding uses of an area.”

The petition requested the actions to be imposed statewide, Mere Point Oyster Co.’s proposed 10-year, 40-acre lease has been mired in controversy. A marathon three-day hearing that spanned several months wrapped up in mid-January after waterfront property owners and lobster fishermen spoke out against what they saw as conflicting uses of the bay and the potential infringement on valuable lobstering grounds. Some of the lobstermen who spoke out against the lease also are members of Save Maquoit Bay.

The department had 120 days to make a ruling, which would have been May 15, but according to Jeff Nichols, communications director of the department of marine resources, “depending on the complexity of the application and the evidence, it may take longer.”

Now, 60 days past that deadline, all parties are still awaiting a response.

Save Maquoit Bay’s petition further delayed the decision, after a hearing May 22 and a public comment period that extended to June 1.

The group asked for an immediate moratorium on all pending lease applications greater than 10 acres and requested the proposed rule be applied retroactively so it would still apply to the application in Maquoit Bay.

In its decision, department officials said that aside from questions of legality over the proposed changes, “it is not realistic to expect the department to evaluate all other potential lease sites in an undefined ‘vicinity.’” The resources required to conduct diving and scoping sessions for every alternative and to assess every location against the criteria would be immense, the report stated, and alternative lease sites could impact people who previously thought they would not be impacted, creating more notice and scoping issues.

“Further, such an exercise could result in the perverse outcome of the selection of a site that does not unreasonably interfere with any existing uses but is unsuitable for the proposed aquaculture activity,” officials said.

The request to impose a moratorium on lease applications greater than 10 acres was also denied because “a 10-acre limitation on lease size may have the unintended effect of causing applicants to apply for multiple leases, as opposed to one single lease of a size that is suitable to meet their needs,” they continued, calling the moratorium “arbitrary.”

Save Maquoit Bay members see it as anything but, and said in a news release that with the decision, the Maine Department of Marine Resources effectively “turned its back on a growing issue in Maine’s water.”

“The in-water aquaculture leases are huge in Maine,” said Tom Santaguida, a lobsterman. “One person can have 10 100-acre leases or, in other words, own 1,000 acres of the bottom. That is going to impact all of us who are trying to make a living,” he said.

Crystal Canney, spokeswoman for Save Maquoit Bay, is concerned that large leases like Mere Point’s could harm Maine’s working waterfront beyond just infringing on lobstering grounds.

“With Maine’s large lease size, leases become attractive to out-of-state investors, hoping to own a piece of Maine,” she said in the release. “Aquaculture (with 42 pending leases and a 97 percent approval rate by the DMR) is no longer about small business in Maine. Our coalition aims to protect Maine’s Ocean from being owned by a handful of individuals at the expense of many.”

She said when the Legislature comes back in January, Save Maquoit Bay will try to have lawmakers address the transferability of leases so that the land cannot be handed over to out-of-state or international corporations without at least a public hearing.

Save Maquoit Bay, which has hundreds of supporters on its Facebook page, will “continue its fight to protect lobstermen and the privatization of Maine’s Oceans,” Canney said.

Dan Devereaux, co-owner of Mere Point Oyster Co. said he and business partner, Doug Niven, are glad the lease criteria was not changed. If adopted, the rules would have implications that would reverberate up and down the coast, he said, implications he thinks would damage the burgeoning aquaculture industry and what remains of Maine’s working waterfront.

Canney said the citizen’s petition was a larger-reaching effort to help lobstermen from Lubec to Kittery who are up against a lot, facing regulations and problems around right whales, bait and now inshore aquaculture. She declined to comment on the department’s delay in the Mere Point Oyster decision.

In the meantime, while Niven and Devereaux await a decision on their lease, operations are being impacted by the two-month delay.

“We hoped to have moved the oysters over to the new lease site at this point,” Devereaux said. “We can’t stop them from growing” and they need more space the bigger they get. They applied for more Limited Purpose Aquaculture sites, or LPAs in the meantime to accommodate the bigger bivalves.  The proposed lease site would allow the company’s annual oyster harvest to increase from about 60,000 in 2018 to about 1.5 million in the next three years, putting as many as 5 million oysters in the water at a given time.

The department has been quiet on when a decision may be forthcoming, but Devereaux said he is patient, knowing that the aquaculture division has been somewhat overwhelmed by the rapid growth in the industry with more and more Mainers putting in applications for sites as the state moves more toward more “sustainable aquaculture.”

“We’re bursting at the seams,” he said, adding that he hopes the decision comes soon so they can move forward with more space.

No matter what though, “Us closing up shop and going away like some are determined to see … that’s not going to happen,” Devereaux said.

If the application is ultimately denied they will apply again, he said.

“We like what we do and we believe in it, so we’re going to try to stick around,” he said.

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