There is something wrong when you can’t even have a conversation in Maine without sending people into an uproar.

That is one of the many reasons Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation (PMFHF) is supporting L.D. 1146.  The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Alley who comes from a multigenerational fishing family in Jonesport and Beals, is well-crafted.  If you are new to the aquaculture conflict, the foundation has been advocating for two years to examine the way the state is conducting oversight on in-water aquaculture leases, which are approved almost every time.

As the president of the foundation, I was surprised when a bill last session suggested doing a study on in-water aquaculture, but it was quickly shot down by the aquaculture lobby.

The last comprehensive study was completed in 2004. I ask one simple question: What business doesn’t take a hard look at itself in 15 years?

The business of aquaculture has grown significantly in the last five years and the waters are a public trust. The right place to have a review is in the Legislature, and this brings up a second question. Why is there so much pushback on reviewing oversight practices over an aquaculture industry that is growing so quickly and impacts Maine’s coast ?

Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation has grown and changed in the last two years. Our organization is involved with lobstermen, environmentalists and some small aquaculturists who are questioning whether the rules and regulations for aquaculture have set the table for industrial aquaculture.

We have worked with the Maine Lobstering Union, of which I am also president. We have sought out international marine biologists to give us the best science, spoke with and hired the former director of the Maine aquaculture program, and several other groups concerned about the future of the lobstering industry and the environment. We have continued to have the conversations with people as we grow as an organization.

Lobstermen and women have a lot of issues on their plate right now – right whales, offshore wind and industrialized aquaculture – it’s really a three-headed sea monster. This is what concerns the foundation’s board of directors – anyone can own up to 1,000 acres of the ocean. I say own, others would argue lease, but the fact is you really own it for 20 years and you can transfer it to an individual, business or corporation without a public hearing. Those are the rules and regulations that have really set the table for Maine to be an attractive place for industrialized aquaculture – large leases, long term leases and lack of transparency around transferability.

But there is one more issue that may be the biggest of all. The commissioner of Department of Marine Resources is given so much latitude it is nearly impossible to reject a lease. There are a number of criteria – navigation, competition and others. However, the commissioner has these words to work with: “unreasonable interference.” It’s a subjective term – undefined, ambiguous. We are now faced with conflict up and down the coast. It’s too much power for a single person to decide the future of Maine’s coast. It may be time to design an oversight board, much like what the Board of Environmental Protection does for the Department of Environmental Protection.

We are watching industrialized aquaculture play out in Gouldsboro right now. American Aquafarms wants to put more than 30 net pens in the water to grow 60 million pounds of salmon. Maine’s first foreign-owned industrialized project was Cooke Aquaculture in the waters where I fish. Cooke has grown to several hundred acres on the water for net-pen salmon.

Marine Resources has a responsibility to conduct a bigger discussion around the future of the Maine coast.  It is supposed to be what’s best for the people of Maine, but it’s clear many conversations around lobstering are relegated to the back of the bus because they aren’t comfortable, convenient or fit in with common themes. It’s always dangerous to surround yourself with people who always say yes instead of asking the question. What’s so wrong with a conversation involving all stakeholders?


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