Mussel-bound: Shellfish farm nets complaints from recreational boaters

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FALMOUTH — Chuck McCatherin spent nearly $700 replacing the propeller for his 23-foot recreational fishing boat several weeks ago after the boat became entangled in kelp and ropes from an aquaculture farm while he was traveling between his Chebeague Island summer home and Falmouth, where he lives and his boat is moored.

The mussel farm off Long Island in Casco Bay was approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and by a public hearing process last year on Long Island.

“I’ve gone through at night and tried to find the floats,” McCatherin said. “Even squinting and using a spotlight to try to find them, it’s hard.”

McCatherin and other recreational boaters who use Falmouth’s three moorings at Handy Boat, Portland Yacht Club and the Town Landing have expressed concern that the mussel farm that was installed in October 2010 could present hazards for boaters.

The farm is in a route frequently used by recreational boaters traveling between Falmouth and Chandler Cove off Chebeague Island.

“If you want to go out to Chebeague, you’re going to go that way,” McCatherin said. “It’s not the highest, but it’s one of the highest traveled corridors for recreational boats.”

Calendar Island Mussels owner Peter Stocks, who owns the new floats, said the farm went through an extensive review process and was approved, not only by government agencies and the Coast Guard, but also by an extensive public hearing process.

“It’s seasonal sailors, not fishermen, who are upset,” Stocks said.

Stocks said he consulted with fishermen in the area when choosing the location, to make sure it was not in a heavily used area.

“Basically, this is a problem that arises often with aquaculture,” Stocks said. “People say ‘we don’t mind aquaculture, we just don’t want it in our backyard.'”

Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said Maine is the largest marine aquaculture producer in the country, and that mussels and oysters are the second largest types of farms in Maine, after salmon farms.

“We import about 84 or 85 percent of the seafood we consume in this country,” Belle said. “That contributes about $9.5 to $9.8 billion to the trade deficit, and much of the seafood that’s imported is not tested for contaminants.”

As a result, he said, there has been a big push to establish sustainable U.S. seafood industries, where fish can be grown and harvested in regulated environments.

Belle said that when new farms go in, there is frequently push-back from the community, but that by the time the farms’ permits are up for renewal, required every 10 years, the critics have become supporters.

“Once they get to know the farmers and see what this does for the community, they almost all become huge fans of the farm,” he said.

But sailboat owner Susan Gilpin of Falmouth said she doesn’t have a problem with the aquaculture, just the placement of Stocks’ floats.

“Over by Clapboard Island, there’s a mussel farm back there,” Gilpin said. “People don’t sail there. That’s fine. I mean, we eat mussels, we like mussels a lot. I just don’t think this is a good spot.”

Gilpin said because of the way sailboats zig-zag across the water to move with the wind, it’s difficult to get into Chandler Cove without going between the two floats.

She said she is concerned because the floats, which have headlight reflectors on them, are difficult to see in fog.

“In broad daylight, you can see them. They have driveway reflectors on them. But boats don’t have headlights,” Gilpin said. “They’re totally invisible in the fog.”

Stocks said the company has gone above and beyond the statutory requirements, installing two flashing lights on the floats and reflectors on six-foot bright orange poles. The floats are also made of steel, which means they show up on radar.

White buoys mark the corners of where the floats can be located, Stocks said, which is a requirement of the permitting process.

Despite the markings, a reporter last week saw a sailboat, using a propeller instead of sails, maneuver between the two floats and through the white buoys on a sunny afternoon.

Falmouth Harbormaster Alan Twombley sent out an email at the end of June to warn all boaters of the floats “located in a historically well traveled route used by those leaving our anchorage and traveling to Long Island, Chebeague Island and points beyond.”

The email included GPS coordinates 43 42.470 -70 09.515 as the location of the floats.

Twombley said the farm owners were under no obligation to inform the town of the new floats, because they are in Long Island’s jurisdiction.

“It’s already been approved by the state and federal government. Who are we?” Twombley said. “All people have to do is recognize it’s there and change their course a bit.”

Coast Guard representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

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

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Recreational boater Chuck McCatherin, who has a home in Falmouth and a home on Chebeague Island, drives by the mussel farm owned by Peter Starks, which McCatherin says poses a potential hazard to boaters traveling to Chandler Cove from Falmouth.

A mussel farm near Little Chebeague Island and Long Island in Casco Bay. The aquaculture farm was installed in October 2010, but as more recreational boaters take to the waters this summer, some have raised concerns about possible collisions with the farm due to its placement in a frequently traveled corridor.

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