When the deadline for written comments passed on a pending experimental aquaculture lease application in Morgan Bay, “a dozen or so” had landed on her desk, said Diantha Robinson, Aquaculture Administrator for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The application, submitted by Joseph Porada of Hancock, asks for a three-year lease to conduct aquaculture experiments in the commercial cultivation of quahogs and American and European oysters on a four-acre site about 2.5 miles north of Jed Island.
Porada asks permission for annual quahog farming of up to 500,000 organisms and 100,000 to 500,000 American oysters.
“I’m a clammer, a water man,” said Porada. “There’s very few opportunities for people in Maine to make a living. Aquaculture is one of them.”
Eight property owners are listed as having shorefront within 1,000 feet of the proposed site. A letter from two of them, Sandy Bolster and Susan Straubing, is attached to Porada’s application, giving “full permission and encouragement to use our shorefront and tidal zone extending from it for his quahog and oyster farming operation.” Specifically, they allow Porada to have an access to the proposed site and to cull, process and bag shellfish from their shorefront.
But other riparian owners are not sold on the idea.
“I’m not against a working waterfront. I just think Morgan Bay is an unlikely and inappropriate place,” said Anne Backer, a riparian property owner named in the application, from her home in Virginia.
“Well, I’m a little conflicted about it,” said Moira Creaser, another riparian owner, who lives on Morgan Bay Road. “I feel like people need a way to earn a living, and if it’s a good way and it doesn’t really show or hurt, it might be all right. On the other hand, I don’t know if I’d want to risk it or not.”
What may show of the aquaculture operation from land, however, has no bearing on the DMR decision.
Aesthetics is not a legal criteria, said Robinson.
When reviewing the site, DMR scientists focus on whether the proposed lease activity would unreasonably interfere with shore access by land owners, boat navigation, fishing and local species.
Backer owns about 1,000 feet of shore front directly south of the proposed site with her husband William, and has spent “long summers” there for the past 19 years.
“We’re concerned it’s the beginning of industrial development at a site that’s not really appropriate,” she said. “The bay is quite narrow…We’re looking further into the scope of his application.”
She and some neighbors have formed an ad hoc committee, hiring Blue Hill attorney Sally Mills to represent their interests, and want the public hearing held “when the ones most impacted” will have a chance to attend.
Porada currently leases sites in Goose Cove for quahog and oyster cultivation. Seeded quahog experiments have been successful, but Porada doesn’t expect commercial harvest at that site until the end of summer 2014.
The experimental phase is needed “because no one’s ever done it before” in Maine, Porada said. “We think we have it now.”
Quahogs are a worldwide billion dollar industry, Porada said, and he is the only quahog grower in Maine.
Scientists from DMR visited the site on October 11, and after they submit a property site report, officials will schedule a public hearing. Robinson did not say when that might be.
“The purpose [of the hearing] is to get reliable evidence, with the opportunity to question it,” Robinson said, when contacted by telephone.
The public hearing on the application is a quasi-judicial proceeding, with statements made under oath. “It’s a further way to determine if the lease meets the legal criteria beyond information on the application and the site report,” Robinson said.
The DMR schedules a public hearing if at least five written requests are received within the 30-day comment period.
Porada said DMR officials told him that the hearing would be held this winter, with a decision made in time for the spring growing season.
If scientific evidence and data show “that I was going to do anything to harm to the non-human environment I would pull the application,” Porada said.