A pending aquaculture lease application has frustrated residents around Middle Bay and highlighted recurring communication problems between the Department of Marine Resources and the people of Maine’s waterfront communities.

The towns of Harpswell and Brunswick, along with residents of both communities, have concerns about Timothy Johnson’s application for a 20-year, standard aquaculture lease, which would grant him the exclusive right to raise and harvest millions of oysters and quahogs on 17.4 acres in Middle Bay.

Skeptics saw a public hearing last month as an opportunity to voice a wide range of doubts about Johnson’s proposal. But the DMR officials’ refusal to engage in some lines of questioning left some frustrated at a process they say is opaque and unfair to local communities.

“Everybody was really disappointed with the DMR,” said resident Scott Bodwell, whose home sits near the proposed lease area. “We just don’t have a lot of confidence in this process. You wonder if you’re really being heard.”

Brunswick and Harpswell leaders cited environmental and economic concerns at February’s public hearing. Brunswick Marine Resources Committee Chairperson Cody Gillis argued granting the lease would box out clam diggers who currently can access the northernmost part of the lease area when tides are low. He also warned that Johnson’s plan to drag for oysters could damage local ecosystems by creating turbidity, kicking up mud and damaging the area’s limited stock of eelgrass.

“This will not only impact local shellfish resources and eelgrass beds but the pogy, crab and lobster industry that exist in the area,” Gillis said.


In its site report, DMR determined Johnson’s lease was unlikely to impact local fishermen and lobstermen but could possibly disrupt shellfish harvesting.

As Maine’s $90 million aquaculture industry has ballooned in recent years, fishermen have grown increasingly concerned about how leases like Johnson’s could impact their business.

Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said recent conflicts over lease applications have largely been the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign funded by wealthy homeowners who don’t want aquaculture farms to disrupt their ocean views.

“We have gone through ups and downs in terms of the public discussion around aquaculture as an activity in the public space,” Belle said. “What is new is having paid activists who are intentionally trying to polarize the debate and scare people.”

Whether or not private interests are muddying the waters, February’s public hearing demonstrated the DMR’s failure to get on the same page as the public, Harpswell Harbormaster Paul Plummer said.

When Brunswick Marine Warden Dan Sylvain testified Johnson had potentially violated rules by dumping 400,000 seed oysters in the lease area, DMR staff declined to pursue the issue and shut down further questions from frustrated residents. Plummer accepted the department’s explanation that it could only discuss matters directly related to the lease approval criteria, but he sympathized with attendees who felt silenced.


“The public thinks that this is the opportunity to come and have an open discussion,” Plummer said. “Unfortunately, that’s just not how the law operates.”

He said the DMR should look for ways to improve lines of communication with residents earlier in the lease process so that everyone feels included.

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher will make a decision on Johnson’s lease application within the next three months.

Johnson, who said he would consider moving the northern boundary of his proposed lease area to avoid commercial diggers, said he will run his business with sustainability in mind.

“It has been a long path to follow learning how to grow oysters and do it efficiently and in harmony with the many people who have come to understand how special Middle Bay is,” he wrote in an email. “Because Middle Bay is healthy and has some of the cleanest waters in Casco bay, Green Boat Oyster Farm will hopefully produce some of the finest oysters available.”

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