Consideration of a bill that would establish a task force to study aquaculture sustainability across Maine evolved on Tuesday into a familiar squabble between those financially invested in the budding industry and fishing professionals who feel their livelihood is under siege.
With her bill, Rep. Jay McCreight, D-Harpswell, wants to form a bipartisan task force to research the current aquaculture production levels, capacity, best practices and its environmental impacts. If the bill passes, the task force would submit its findings to the Marine Resources and Environment and Natural Resources committees by Dec. 11.
Coastal aquaculture has not been studied by the state since 2003, McCreight told members of the Marine Resources Committee during a public hearing, saying, “it’s important we take another deep dive … to consider the impacts of climate change and mitigation strategies, [and] to look at potential for economic growth.”
Most supporters were people like Ernest Burgess and John Powers, two longtime fishermen who said the state’s issuance of aquaculture licenses is invading their fishing waters.
Burgess of Chebeague Island, who’s been lobstering for 66 years, said aquaculture has “become divisive in the fishing community. It has pitted friend against friend. What we really need is a task force [that] looks at the rules, to make them fair between lobstermen and the aquaculture industry.”
The well-worn dispute has become a flashpoint particularly for midcoast members of the fishing and lobstering community, many of whom — including Powers and Burgess — signed a petition submitted last month to the Department of Marine Resources to halt the issuance of coastal aquaculture licenses for areas larger than 10 acres.
Nearly 50 licenses are currently pending state approval, some longer than a year. The department has said it will hold a public hearing on the petition before June.
In March, Powers, who has been a lobsterman in Brunswick for more than 40 years, said the coordinated effort was to ensure fairness in the licensing process, not to stop all coastal aquaculture.
On Tuesday, his position was territorial, perhaps more reflective of the general fishing community.
“These leases are handed out like candy on Halloween,” he told the committee. “Traditionally, we have been fishing the bottom. Maybe we’re being greedy, but we’ve had it to ourselves, and for us to move means we lose income, or we have to crowd out someone else. We need help with this, and we need a task force.”
But Fiona de Koning, co-owner of Hollander and de Koning Mussel Processors in Trenton, who said it took her family roughly two-and-a-half years to receive their license from the state, thinks the process is already “stringent and effective.”
She, like other aquaculture license holders who spoke Tuesday, castigated some of the bill’s supporters for what she said were “scare tactics” and “untruths” to make their point, arguing that advocacy for the bill was turning an otherwise “measured debate into a frenzy of hot-button issues” that will lead to bad governance.
The committee will likely decide later this month whether to recommend the bill for passage in the full Legislature.