A Cooke Aquaculture sea site, a penned area where the company farms salmon, off the coast of Maine pictured in 2019. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

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Robert W. Alley Sr. of Beals represents District 138 in the Maine House of Representatives.

As a fourth-generation lobsterman, I know that the ocean is peaceful at times and wild at others. What guides us through these changes is the anticipation of what’s ahead. Unfortunately, I see a storm on the horizon for lobstermen and the future of this industry: It is large, corporate aquaculture if it remains unchecked.

My part of Washington County yields some of the state’s best lobster. It is not just the lobsters that keep our economy rolling, but all the jobs lobstering supports, like the selling and production of gear, bait, boats and fuel. I have watched as Cooke Aquaculture, the largest grower of in-water salmon in Maine, has been given the green light to expand. Cooke leases hundreds of acres of the Maine ocean.

Those of us who lobster are concerned about large leases and industrialized aquaculture projects proposed for Maine. That’s why I sponsored LD 1146, An Act to Protect Maine’s Ocean Waters and Support Regulatory Oversight and the Long-Term Health of the Aquaculture Industry. I have heard concerns ranging from navigating around large-industrialized fish farms to finding dead lobsters near the pens. Lobstermen have told me repeatedly about losing access to their regular fishing places. Any foreign company that leases such large tracts can lease up to 1,000 acres of the ocean, making this a serious concern for the lobstering industry.

It is time for Maine to review its rules and regulations to reduce conflict between lobstermen, aquaculturists and other stakeholders. This doesn’t mean I am anti-aquaculture. Aquaculture, done correctly, is good for the economy, the state and consumers. I am concerned, though about the scale of the aquaculture projects coming into Maine and creating conflict on the working waterfront.

There is no question conflict is growing between aquaculturists and those in traditional fisheries. This is partially because 95 percent of leases are being approved, and this growth in the aquaculture industry is coming at a time when the Department of Marine Resources has fewer staff for oversight and monitoring. It’s not a good balance for the people of Maine or our coastline.

In Gouldsboro, a recent application for over 100 acres of salmon fish pens has been submitted to the Department of Marine Resources. There are concerns there from lobstermen, environmentalists and Maine residents who have lived near the bay for generations.

Maine has become attractive to industrialized aquaculture because of the large tracts that can be leased, the low fees to lease them and, in part, the state’s limited ability to monitor them. The concern around conflict and appropriate siting is spreading in Maine to smaller aquaculturists who don’t want to be gobbled up by a big corporation. Some have expressed concerns about large lease holders, the huge amounts of money that follow industrial aquaculture and the need to slow it down.

We are, in effect, selling our ocean without proper checks and balances in place. There are traditional uses that make Maine’s water attractive to those who vacation here, and the Atlantic is one of our state’s greatest assets. We need to protect that.

That’s why LD 1146 is important. The bill calls for a statewide conversation with all stakeholders, not just the traditional voices and well-paid special interests. It’s clear with the current rules and regulations in place that the horse is out of the barn, or rather, the fish is out of the pen. Our waters are a public resource, and elected officials must consider Maine’s waters in a thoughtful way instead of a hasty economic dash that hurts Maine.

It’s time for us to step back and decide what we want our waterfront to look like in the future, review the regulations and determine what is best for all who work, live and recreate on the water. We have an opportunity to get this right. Let’s do it.