Brunswick oyster farm bid runs into opposition

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BRUNSWICK — Members of a Maquoit Bay citizens group are concerned after discovering the town’s harbormaster is a co-applicant on a 40-acre, 10-year aquaculture application with the state.

According to the Department of Marine Resources, Mere Point Oyster Co. has completed the aquaculture lease application for the area south of Bunganunc Rock and west of the Mere Point peninsula.

The applicants listed are Harbormaster and Marine Warden Dan Devereaux and his business partner Doug Niven.

A public hearing on their application, scheduled for Oct. 15 at Brunswick Town Hall, was postponed to Nov. 15, according to the department. DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said the state is looking for space with more seating capacity in anticipation of a large turnout.

An informational meeting about aquaculture in Casco Bay was also scheduled to be held at Curtis Memorial Library  Thursday, Sept. 27.

Paul Dioli, a member of the Maquoit Bay Preservation Group, said they support local aquaculture, but their concern lies with the “size and the scope of the application,” which, he said, proposes a “floating factory.”

Dioli said the 3-year-old company has “no track record” to show it can run an operation of the scale described in the application.

“They paid $1,500 for this lease application, and they can take a 10-year, 40-acre lease and spin it for significant profit,” he said. “That’s not what aquaculture is meant to be in Maine.”

Dioli also said because Devereaux is the town’s harbormaster, his job is to “police what goes on in the bay.” Having him as a co-owner of the project is a “complete conflict of interest,” he said.

Devereaux on Sept. 25 said he and Nevin did their due diligence in developing the site review, scientific evidence and environmental concerns for the application.

He said some people who oppose the operation may be confused about where his jurisdiction as marine warden begins and ends, and what his responsibilities are.

“We’ve had the town attorney look at this (and) he’s indicated that he sees no conflict at all,” Devereaux said. “I’ve had private attorneys look at it all; I certainly wouldn’t put anybody in my family or Doug’s family at a risk of conflict of interest. We’ve followed all the rules.”

Devereaux said for the past three years the company has operated on 26 limited-purpose licenses of 400 square feet each, which allows the farm to put out oyster cages and suspended gear. Together, he said, the smaller leases comprise “hardly an acre.”

“What we’re looking to do is take those smaller farms and put them in this area,” he said.

DMR allows applicants to lease up to 100 acres. If approved, Devereaux said, the new lease will be the second-largest in the state.

According to the application, the proposed farm will reach a “maximum stocking density” of 5 million oysters of various sizes by 2023. Devereaux said the new lease would also give the company “elbow room” to experiment with other species, like scallops and quahogs.

He also said the project is going to be “pretty minuscule” when it is put in the context of the 3,000-acre bay, and he and Nevin have changed their technology more than once over the past three years to reduce the “visual impact” of farming.

“We’re not putting up big buildings on the water; we’re asking for three work boats,” he said.

He said he thinks some of the pushback from residents comes from being faced with a relatively “new practice” of aquaculture that is unknown to them.

In the face of climate change and its effects like ocean warming and algae blooms, however, he said the technique is crucial.

“I truly believe that if we don’t follow these adaptive strategies we put our bays at more substantial risk during these changes,” he said.

Members of the Maquoit Bay Preservation Group aired their concerns about the application at the Sept. 17 Town Council meeting.

Portland attorney David Kallin also spoke on behalf of the group, and called the application “an issue of shared federal, state and municipal regulation.”

“The harbormaster’s role is to ensure that the myriad of these shared uses are able to co-exist in harmony and safety,” he said.

Town Manager John Eldridge, however, said the town does not believe it has a “licensing role” in the project.

Dioli, the preservation group representative, on Sept. 25 said he “doesn’t want to stop farming,” but if the state keeps aquaculture leases limited to one year and they remain non-transferable, it would make lessees have to perform to keep them.

“The Department of Marine Resources has to really look at this and say what’s best for Maine, what’s best for the bay, (and) what’s best for aquaculture,” he said. “Because right now it seems like that’s what’s best for the owners.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

This story was edited Sept. 28 to indicate the farm’s proposed stocking density. 

Dan Devereaux, Brunswick’s harbormaster and marine warden, at Mere Point boat launch last year. Homeowners on Maquoit Bay are concerned about a 40-acre, 10-year state aquaculture license sought by Mere Point Oyster Co., which is co-owned by Devereaux.

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