News Feature

Originally published in Castine Patriot, August 23, 2018
Northern Bay oyster farm lease nears DMR decision

by Anne Berleant

Three years after a Northern Bay oyster farm was first proposed, a decision by the Department of Marine Resources on the lease application awaits Commissioner Patrick Keliher’s signature.

The decision is considered a draft and not final until signed by the commissioner.

Of the nearly 23 acres applicant Michael Briggs of Taunton Bay Oyster Co. requested near Sparks, Molly and Gravel islands, 19 acres have been approved in the draft decision, with no dragging, removal of eelgrass or power washing allowed on the site.

The DMR also denied tract 1, 3.54 acres near Aunt Molly Island, because of interference with clam and mussel harvesting; reduced tract 2, south of Sparks Island, to 3.64 acres for navigational reasons and limited placing suspended gear there to after June 30; and on tract 3, near Gravel Island, denied bottom gear, allowing 6.04 acres of surface gear and 15.37 acres of bottom culture. Bottom gear and overwintering were not denied on tract 2.

The total suspended and bottom culture acreage proposed in the draft decision is 19 acres. The lease, if signed, runs for 10 years, and would grow upward of 3 million oysters annually.

But for two intervenors, the town of Penobscot, and many citizens—the 2017, three-day public hearing drew over 100 people, including shellfish, lobster and other commercial fishermen—these changes are not enough.

“I don’t think you could get a more united and diverse group of people that testified about this lease,” intervenor Caren Plank said.

Plank, with fellow intervenor Bill McWeeney, submitted comments on the draft decision around each legal criteria under review. In addition, a letter drafted by Penobscot resident James Saltonstall objecting to the decision, signed by dozens of citizens, was sent to the commissioner.

Briggs also submitted comments in the permitted 10-day period following the draft decision. He specifically objected to the dragging prohibition, issued to safeguard eelgrass beds, holding that dragging “is essential to the success of this project,” and bottom culture cages will prohibit the growth of eelgrass anyway.

The Penobscot Board of Selectmen wrote Keliher over concerns that tract 3’s proximity to town-owned Gravel Island, “enjoyed as a recreation spot for generations,” and disagrees with the DMR’s findings of fact regarding vessel navigation.

Aquaculture lease decisions are guided by state laws, and the DMR uses legal criteria around navigation, wildlife, recreation, and riparian egress and ingress, in determining a lease approval.

“The issuance of a final decision is considered the ‘final agency action’ on the application,” Aquaculture Hearing Officer Amanda Ellis said, noting the right of intervenors to seek judicial review of the final decision.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to correct and clarify the exact acreage and what the DMR permitted and denied in the provisional lease decision, and added geographical information.