Originally published in Castine Patriot, May 8, 2014 and The Weekly Packet, May 8, 2014
“Who qualifies as having a say?”
Culture and aquaculture of Bagaduce River draws 250 to DMR meeting
Around 250 citizens of Maine coastal towns of Castine, Brooksville, Sedgwick and Penobscot attended a public meeting on Bagaduce River aquaculture leases held by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, on April 30, 2014.
by Anne Berleant
The Bagaduce River—the 14-mile waterway that flows between the towns of Brooksville, Sedgwick, Penobscot and Castine before emptying into Penobscot Bay—is “home,” said Maggie Williams, a Penobscot resident of Bridges Point Road, which borders a portion of the river.
Williams’ description of the Bagaduce River as “home” was quickly echoed by fisherman and Bayview Market & Takeout owner Larry Reynolds, who counted back generations of family in Penobscot: “You have the natives in the area and the ones who have money,” he said.
Both spoke at a public meeting held by the Department of Marine Resources on April 30 at the Penobscot Community School attended by around 250 people. Its goal was to explain aquaculture lease and license regulations and help answer the question: “Who qualifies as having a say about what goes on, on the [Bagaduce] river?” said Natalie Springuel of Maine Sea Grant who facilitated the meeting.
The sharp rise of limited purpose aquaculture licenses on the Bagaduce River was behind a letter sent to the DMR by Penobscot Selectmen last year, at citizen request and of an ad hoc citizen group drawing from residents from the four river towns, questioning the licensing process. LPAs are renewable, one-year licenses for a 400 square-foot area.
“Most of what has raised controversy are the [LPA] licenses,” said Diantha Robinson, DMR Aquaculture Administrator. “We’re pretty close to maxing out on licensing from Johnson Point to the Davis Narrows [reversing falls] bridge.”
Of the 38 current LPA sites on the Bagaduce River, 16 were issued during 2013. Two standard leases, good for up to 100 acres for 10 years, and two experimental leases, for up to four acres and three years also operate on the river.
“It looks like a gold rush,” commented Tony Amon of Penobscot.
The rising number of LPA licenses and their effect prompted a recent citizen petition to cease issuing new licenses and refuse renewals of existing ones, but that petition will not be submitted to the DMR, said Tom Adamo of Penobscot.
“The petition is off the boards because we know how much pain it caused our neighbors who are aquaculturists,” he said. “I don’t want to drive any aquaculturists off the river. I also don’t want to be dominated by commercial interests.”
Bagaduce River is “home.” Maggie Williams of Penobscot speaks of the “cookie cutter” approach towards aquaculture licensing by the Maine Department of Resources and its affect on the Bagaduce River, “home” to residents of four coastal towns. Video by Anne Berleant
A river with many faces
The Bagaduce River as a fertile resource for working fishermen, as home to seals and other wildlife, and as a site for waterfront homes and recreational uses all found strong voices in their favor at the meeting.
The river is unique in that its warm, protected waters are perfect for growing oysters, said Bagaduce Oyster Company owner Jesse Leach, who holds a standard lease for 4.13 acres on the Bagaduce River.
“We have to hunt all over the state of Maine to find estuaries where [oysters] will grow.”
But those same characteristics bring seals and other wildlife to the river.
“That section [Johnson Point Road to the Davis Narrows Bridge] is considered a nursery for seals,” said Adamo, who lives along that stretch of the river. “Aquaculture and seals don’t mix” on that part of the river. Also, seal pupping season occurs “at the same time as oystermen are putting in their gear.”
“The Bagaduce River has been a working river for generations,” said Brooksville selectmen Darrell Fowler. “Now we want to make it a place to build great big homes. We have to learn to live with what we have to do. We need jobs in this area…We have got along, so why can’t we now?”
Bailey Bowden, chairman of the Penobscot Shellfish Committee, asked why no citizens or “government official” has come to them since the committee formed in 2008 with concerns and questions.
“We have a couple of hundred years [all together] of experience on the Bagaduce River,” he said.
Bowden echoed Fowler, stating that “the proliferation of houses” has had the biggest impact on the river “in recent years.”
The effect of aquaculture sites on wildlife and, especially, seal pup haul outs, drew comments, as did the subjective nature of the DMR licensing criteria, which states an aquaculture operation should not “unreasonably” interfere with current uses.
“Wildlife viewing is a use,” said Maggie Williams.
“I’m not sure it’s just the oyster folk who are disturbing seals,” said one Brooksville resident, noting the presence of kayaks and motor boats.
Aquaculture bound by state regulation
The DMR does not have the authority to not consider an application for LPAs or deny it for any reason not in the legislation, Robinson explained.
One person may hold up to four LPA licenses, and three sites are permitted within a 1,000 square foot radius of other existing sites. The applicant submits a map and site specifications with the license application and must also send copies to riparian owners within 300 feet of the proposed site or sites.
“Three hundred feet is very close,” observed Dan Cassidy of Brooksville.
A major problem with LPAs, according to citizens, is that the DMR relies on site maps and specifications from the applicant rather than perform its own biological site review, as it does with standard and experimental lease applications.
Instead, the DMR requests the local harbormaster or town officials to sign off on the site map and application. Robinson then recommends to the commissioner that an application be granted or not based on procedural laws.
“We are requested to certify…with no information available to us,” said Penobscot Selectman Paul Bowen. “Which is why we refuse to do that. Sometimes [the application] comes with a nautical chart that is 40 years old.”
If the town harbormaster or selectmen refuse to sign an application, it is then given to a DMR Marine Patrol officer, who does not make a site visit and has no local knowledge, Bowen continued.
“It was desired to return [LPA licensing] to local control,” said DMR biologist Jon Lewis. “There is no mandate that a harbormaster or selectmen sign…it’s a request.”
“There’s a lot of fear, from oystermen, from riparian owners,” said Adamo. “I would ask the DMR to take a hit, to make a substantive change [in regulations].”
Rep. Ralph Chapman (D-Brooksville), who sits on the Marine Resource Committee, which can propose changes in marine regulations, was in attendance.
“I strongly urge concerned citizens to bring proposed changes” to the committee, he said.
“The concern is that the [DMR] is not setting limits,” said Amon. “It’s not should we have seals or not [or] should we have oysters or not.”
“It’s reasonable to ask for limits,” he added.
Williams called the DMR’s licensing process “cookie cutter.”
“This isn’t just about oyster fishing, it’s about how we live,” said Rob Shetterly of Brooksville. “We need to be coming together as a community and talk about…the entire spectrum of the way we’re living.”
The issues surrounding the future of aquaculture on the Bagaduce River are “complicated,” Meredith Mendelson, DMR deputy commissioner said, “I don’t expect us to resolve any of them tonight.”
The comments and suggestions by those present at the meeting were recorded by a DMR staffer for later review. In addition, questions about the aquaculture leasing process may be sent to Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One area the DMR was unable to discuss was the experimental lease application for oyster farming on Morgan Bay, because of ongoing legal matters surrounding the application.
Correction: Dick Kane of Kane-Lewis Productions recorded the meeting; the DMR recorded written notes on public comments for later review. In addition, we misquoted statements attributed to Penobscot resident Tom Adamo and for that we apologize.