Lobstermen oppose Portland company's plan for kelp farms in Casco Bay
CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — A Portland company's proposal for kelp farms near Chebeague and Jewel islands is being opposed by lobstermen, who say the farms will interfere with their businesses.
Paul Dobbins and Tollef Olson, of Ocean Approved LLC, have applied for three-year experimental leases for two, three-acre areas in Casco Bay to grow kelp. Ocean Approved already has an experimental lease for an area near Little Chebeague Island.
The company won a $300,000 grant last month from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Small Business Innovative Research program to continue their research to develop, seed and cultivate kelp. Theirs was the first kelp farm to open in the United States.
However, after their farm was proposed, several lobster fisherman wrote letters to the Maine Department of Marine Resources requesting a public hearing on the locations of the farms.
"I've fished that area for a lot of years," said Chebeague Island lobsterman Ernie Burgess. "It's an October spot."
Burgess said he's not opposed to aquaculture, but that he thinks the process of privatizing a public resource is fundamentally wrong.
"I object to it in concept," he said.
Burgess, who is also on the Chebeague Island Planning Board, said the island is planning to develop the shore area in front of the proposed kelp farm for a public wharf and mooring.
"This was in our Comprehensive Plan. We own that shore-front land there. When the money is available, if it ever is, we would develop that area," he said.
If Ocean Approved receives its three-year lease for the area, any fishing or other activities that "unreasonably interfere" with the farm would be prohibited.
Because the kelp is farmed seven feet below the surface, most boats would not have navigation issues and could continue to traverse the area. However, because lobster fishing lines could become tangled in the ropes the kelp grows on, lobstering in the lease sites would not be allowed.
"The basic framework is that the lease cannot unreasonably interfere with other uses of the area," DMR Aquaculture Hearings Officer Diantha Robinson said.
It will be up to Robinson and the DMR commissioner to determine whether the lease interferes unreasonably with lobster fishing in the area. The DMR has received letters from at least eight lobstermen requesting a hearing for the Chebeague Island site, and at least five requesting a hearing for the Jewel Island site.
Robinson said that during the process, the DMR could decide to make the lease area smaller, but could not move the lease area into other space, or the entire lease application process would have to begin again.
The hearing is a formal fact-finding adjudicatory hearing where witnesses are called and testify under oath.
"It's not a popularity contest, it's a fact-finding session," Robinson said.
Dobbins said he's confident the lease sites do not present an unreasonable interference with lobstering in the area. He and his business partner, Olson, have monitored the area for several years and have not seen many lobster traps there.
"We don't think it will have an impact on the fishery. That's why we chose that site," he said.
Part of the Ocean Approved business plan is to provide another source of income for lobstermen during the months when they don't fish, since kelp grows only in the winter. Dobbins and Olson hope lobstermen will start kelp farms of their own and use Ocean Approved to process and distribute the product.
A representative of the Maine Lobstermen's Association said no one has contacted them to get involved in this process, and that it is unlikely the MLA will take a position on a local issue like this.
Jeff Putnam, chairman of the Lobster Zone Council for Zone F, which includes Casco Bay, was out fishing and could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday.
Dobbins said the area Ocean Approved has proposed near Chebeague Island is 120 feet wide and muddy on the bottom. He said lobsters certainly crawl across the area, but there is no structure there to attract them.
He has asked the DMR change the location for the hearing from Chebeague Island to somewhere on the mainland so the company's supporters, many of whom live on the mainland, will have an easier time attending.
"We've already invested a significant amount of money into this process," Dobbins said. "That's why we choose our sites very, very carefully."
A DMR scientist completed a site analysis, including diving and photographing the area last week, and will give a formal report as part of the process, although it is unclear when that report will be available.
The DMR has not yet scheduled the public hearings. There will be one for the lease site near Jewel Island and another for the lease site by Chebeague Island. Information about the leases and hearings is available on the DMR's website: maine.gov/dmr.