Originally published in The Weekly Packet, September 27, 2018 and Castine Patriot, September 20, 2018
Northern Bay oyster lease granted, with conditions
by Anne Berleant
A 10-year lease to grow oysters in Northern Bay passed its final approval after Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher signed a decision September 29 granting just over 19 acres to Taunton Bay Oyster Co.
However, applicant Mike Briggs did not get everything he asked for.
A 3.54 acre tract near Aunt Molly Island was denied; a tract south of Sparks Island was modified from 4.8 acres to 3.64 to accommodate navigation, and suspended gear is banned May 1 to July 1; and bottom gear is prohibited on a 15.37 acre tract near Gravel Island, where 6.04 acres of surface gear and 15.37 acres of bottom culture are allowed.
Dragging, removal of eelgrass and powerwashing are prohibited throughout the lease site.
“I’m not happy with the decision, but have always had plans for what I’d do depending on any condition that was imposed,” Briggs said.
Selectman Paul Bowen said he saw no positive impact on the town from the oyster farm. “For folks who are associated with the area, and riparian owners, I think it will make a substantial difference, not a positive one.”
The lease runs for 10 years, and would grow upward of 3 million oysters annually.
Briggs first presented his plan to the public in 2015 and formally submitted a lease application to the DMR in 2016. A public hearing in January 2017 spanned three days to allow for public testimony.
Objections focused on increased noise and boat traffic, the presence of kelp and eelgrass beds, the impact on shorebirds, the seal population, and recreational and commercial use.
“I make my living from Northern Bay,” Penobscot fisherman Stephen Bechard testified at the hearing.
The 12-mile length of Bagaduce River, with its warm, protected waters, is prized by shellfish growers and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Maine has deemed it an area of statewide ecological significance both for the waterfowl and wading birds that flock to it and for its conditions that are conducive to a productive shellfishery. (See maine.gov/dacf/mnap/focusarea/bagaduce_river_focus_area.pdf).
Aquaculture was identified as an area of economic growth in Maine 30 years ago when the DMR and state planning office, with funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, convened an Aquaculture Development Committee, with a mandate to identify the production issues that constrain production and devise a strategy for overcoming production impediments.
Since then, aquaculture statewide has grown, especially in the last decade. According to a 2017 Maine Aquaculture Economic Impact Report issued by the University of Maine Aquaculture Research Institute, since 2007 the total economic impact of aquaculture has almost tripled from $50 million to $137 million dollars, annually. The top three species? Atlantic salmon, blue mussels and Eastern oysters.
The DMR’s authority is to grant, deny or modify lease applications based on legal criteria.
“The DMR can’t promote aquaculture. We administer an aquaculture program,” then-DMR policy specialist Chris Vonderweidt said at the Northern Bay public hearing.
Briggs said he plans to start production in 2019, and will apply for new lease sites on either side of the Davis Narrows Bridge in Brooksville to compensate for the conditions imposed on the Northern Bay lease.
“To ensure a continuous supply of oysters to your customers, you must have a backup plan for harvesting. …The only alternative I have is to apply for another few acres where dragging wouldn’t be prohibited.”
Citizens may request judicial review within 40 days of the decision. Caren Plank, an intervenor and owner of Aunt Molly and Sparks islands, had no immediate comment but said she plans to review the situation further.