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Lobstermen question Casco Bay kelp farm on principle

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Lobstermen question Casco Bay kelp farm on principle

CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Approximately 20 people came out Monday for the first of two Department of Marine Resources aquaculture hearings on a three-year experimental lease of waters off the coast of Chebeague and Jewell islands for two kelp farms.

After the hearings, the DMR has 60 days to decide whether to grant the leases.

The farms are proposed by business partners Paul Dobbins and Toloff Olson, who run Ocean Approved. They hope to make kelp farming the state's newest aquaculture venture.

"The purpose of this lease is to determine the optimum growth environment and seeding and harvest periods through the measurement of yields for native Maine species of kelp to aid in selecting permanent kelp aquaculture across the U.S.," Dobbins said Monday.

The kelp, which is popular in Asia and eaten all over the world, is grown and sold as a food product. The seaweed has not yet caught on with American palates, but Dobbins and Olson are counting on health-minded consumers who are looking for locally grown sustainable food products that are healthy and environmentally responsible.

Dobbins said the company plans to publish the results of its studies on the different native species of kelp, water current, temperature and other factors in a kelp farming "how-to" manual at the end of 2014.

On Monday, however, a group of lobstermen, all residents of Chebeague Island, spoke out against the proposed three-acre lease site near Sunset Landing and west southwest of Indian Point.

"I have traps about 50 yards from there. My concern is, are you going to do any scientific testing, about putting a wall of kelp up there?," lobsterman Ernie Burgess asked. "Will it affect the catch southwest (of the lease site)?"

Dobbins said the farm would not be growing "a wall of kelp" and that kelp often provides protection for numerous species and could even improve the area for fishermen.

Burgess said after the hearing that he was satisfied with the DMR's hearing officer, Diantha Robinson, and with Ocean Approved's testimony, which included a lengthy slide-show of months of photos of the buoy-less site.

Burgess said that the lobstermen come into the aquaculture lease permitting process at a disadvantage.

"Quite frankly, this isn't a hot spot for lobsters," he said of the proposed site. "I'm not a public speaker, not an aquaculture expert. I'm just a dumb lobsterman."

"Trying to protect something that's not really a hot spot (for lobster fishing) is tough," he added.

Lobsterman Lee Bowman said this was just an example of what is a larger problem for commercial fishermen in Casco Bay and throughout the state.

"This is public property sold for private use," Bowman said.

Although Ocean Approved has no plans to sell its equipment and the lease site to another organization, Bowman said sale of a public resource for private monetary gain was a major issue for fishermen. He said he'd like to see the state institute a sunset clause in all leases, so they could not take over an area indefinitely.

"The principal is what concerns us," Bowman said.

He also said lobster behavior has changed over the years, and more lobsters are being caught in areas with muddy bottoms, like the proposed lease site, rather than the traditional rocky areas.

"Every year, I've caught more and more lobsters in the mud," he said.

Some groups that traditionally have opposed aquaculture, however, spoke out in favor of the kelp farms.

"We recognize that any time someone wants to lease ocean bottom, there will be concerns, but this project has done a good job documenting this area as an area that's not fished," said Sean Mahoney, Portland-based Conservation Law Foundation vice president. "Sustainable uses are extremely important."

Mahoney said his organization supports Ocean Approved's plan to bring kelp farming to Maine, because it could support the local economy and bring jobs to the state's coastal islands.

One aspect of kelp farming that Mahoney's group is particularly excited about is that kelp filters nitrates from the water naturally as part of its growing process, actually cleaning up waters that have issues with large algae blooms as a result of runoff from waste water and fertilizers.

Ocean Approved set up a kelp farm in Boothbay Harbor recently for the express purpose of cleaning up the water, rather than to cultivate and sell the plants.

"As somebody who hasn't always been in support of aquaculture, I see this as a project that has addressed local concerns," Mahoney said.

But Burgess said he would like to see those interested in aquaculture in heavily fished areas approaching fishermen first, before they put in their lease applications with the state.

He also said it was important for fishermen to speak up at the Statehouse when new aquaculture rules are proposed or changed.

"The only place to do anything about this is Augusta," Burgess said. "But getting fishermen to Augusta is like putting cats in a wheelbarrow."

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.