Oysters and catfish are the top aquaculture crops in the U.S., according to a recent federal Department of Agriculture report. In Yarmouth, concerns led Running Tide Industries to put a hold on expanding its oyster growing operation off Sandy Ledges. File

YARMOUTH — Due in part to pressure from concerned residents, Running Tide Technologies is not expanding its oyster growing operation off Sandy Point Ledges, at least for now.

“We were considering expanding, but we’re not doing it now,” company co-owner Justine Simon said this week. “We met with local residents (Dec. 17) and listened to their concerns and that’s part of why we’re not expanding” at this time.

Running Tide has a relatively small oyster operation in Yarmouth and has yet to see a harvest from the oysters the company seeded about a year ago, Simon said. This past summer was Running Tide’s first growing season under local leases.

Harbormaster Will Owen said locals are not necessarily opposed to aquaculture in general, but “they are worried about the impact from growth of this particular operation,” which Owen said is located in a “popular recreation area” for boating, swimming and fishing.

“The original proposal was not too bad,” he said, “but it’s becoming a bigger operation than people want to see there.”

Owen said the Maine Department of Marine Resources makes the ultimate decision about whether to lease ocean space to private companies, but the department does take public opinion into account, along with any municipal input.

Owen said he agrees with residents that an expanded aquaculture operation near Sandy Ledges conflicts with historic uses and that there may not be enough room in the narrow strait for both.

Right now, he said, Running Tide has four limited purpose aquaculture leases in Yarmouth. Each lease allows the company to utilize 400 square feet of ocean for the purpose of growing marine products for harvest.

Running Tide also has an oyster hatchery in Harpswell, where it is leasing land at Mitchell Field.

The harvest value of the aquaculture industry in Maine was about $72 million in 2018, according to the Maine Aquaculture Association. The association’s website says there are 190 aquatic farms in the state that utilize approximately 1,319 acres of ocean, which equals just over 2 square miles.

The association also says the aquaculture industry provides over 50% of the world’s seafood supply, a figure which is expected to reach 63% by 2030. According to a recent United States Department of Agriculture census, nationwide sales of aquaculture products reached $1.5 billion in 2018. The census also showed that catfish and oysters are the top species in both sales and the total number of farms.

In Maine, the Aquaculture Association says ocean farmers are growing everything from Atlantic salmon, eastern oysters and blue mussels to seaweed, scallops, clams and green sea urchins.

“Aquaculture provides options for different species to be grown and sold in Maine, diversifying the coastal economy and helping communities become more resilient in the face of a changing climate,” the Maine Aquaculture Association website states.

Marty Odelin, who co-owns Running Tide, agrees, and said this week that “oysters are crucial to healthy coastal ecosystems.” He also argued that bringing oysters back to Casco Bay is “critical to prepare the ecosystem and working waterfront for the ravages of climate change.”

But not everyone agrees with what they see as a proliferation of aquaculture that’s negatively impacting traditional fisheries.

The group Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage is working to oppose various aquaculture operations in order to ensure that “all Mainers can continue to earn a living and recreate along the coast.”

On its website the group said “fishermen are losing bottom and fishing space to large aquaculture leases … (and) our fishing communities and our state cannot afford for this to happen.” That’s one reason the group plans to appeal the Department of Marine Resources’ recent decision to lease more than 34 acres of ocean in Maquoit Bay in Brunswick to the Mere Point Oyster Company.

And the Protect Maine group is not the only one opposing the Mere Point project.

In a press release issued last week, the Mere Point Preservation Group said it, too, will continue to fight the lease, with member Peter Vaughn saying, “We are disappointed … (with the) approval of this lease, which essentially gives exclusive access to acres of ocean to those who will profit by their use or sale, while keeping away those who fish, boat, or just live beside those waters.”

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