Working as a deckhand on various draggers out of Point Judith, R.I., in the late 1970s and early 80s, I witnessed firsthand the decimation of the commercial fisheries stocks. Larger, more efficient boats armed with emerging fish-finding technologies led to unsustainable harvests. The balance of life and the destruction of bottom habitat still have not recovered.
During my annual recreational fishing trips to Eastport and nearby Canadian waters, I witnessed the commercialization of all the coves in the area, only to arrive one year to see them eerily left fallow because of unforeseen disease.
We used to easily catch a bucketload of winter flounder in these coves, but then we found ourselves firmly forced out by lease-holding salmon farmers. When the coves were abandoned for a mandated recovery period, I dropped my line in many of them to see if my flounder friends were there. I found one, lonely sea raven and an otherwise sterile absence of life.
Now, even closer to home, I am witnessing the commercialization of a precious unspoiled resource: the Bagaduce River, an ecosystem virtually unchanged in the 30 years I have called this Hancock County river home. All of a sudden in 2013, we have seen an unprecedented expansion of leases and 15 new applications for test permits. As permission is granted for more of these commercial aquaculture operations, I wonder how much of this activity the Bagaduce can support before there is a significant change to the balance of indigenous, marine life.
Meanwhile, not far away on the Damariscotta River, after years of extensive oyster aquaculture development, there is a totally unexpected die-off of oysters caused by a microscopic pathogen, resulting in a river-wide quarantine. Two years ago, one researcher reported that 96 percent of the oysters sampled in the river were infected with the MSX pathogen. The oystermen have been hit hard in a way that reduces the net gains they were counting on. Will this pathogen someday strike the operations on the Bagaduce? No one knows.
What unintended consequences will increased oyster aquaculture activity have on the indigenous marine life on the Bagaduce? Will pre-aquaculture populations be crowded out or underfed because of the encroachment of this industry? Is this yet another big experiment like the Callahan Mine, Deep Horizon oil rigs, clear-cut forests of years past or unsustainable commercial fisheries practices?
These ventures always seemed like good ideas at the time until mother nature exposed the shortcomings of human understanding or unfettered ambition. Has the state of Maine even conducted a study by unbiased biologists, not employed by the state, on the impacts of this new industry here?
Over the years, area residents have been compelled to push back and emphatically say “No” to projects like the Applied Energy Services coal-fired power plant in Bucksport, the Groundwave Emergency Network tower erected in Penobscot and whirring wind turbines in proximity to people who must endure their effects 24-7.
The commercialization of the Bagaduce River is no different. It’s easy for people at a distance to dismiss those vocally opposed to these kinds of changes by claiming it’s simply a case of “Not In My Backyard.” But these projects are more problematic than enthusiastic developers from away let on or fully appreciate.
Many of us anticipated the expansion of short-term commercial permits into long-term leases that now fill the upper reaches of the river. There is a limit to how much industrial activity we can tolerate before there is a substantial change in the quality of life for pupping seals, nearby nesting eagles, recently reestablished eelgrass beds, migrating waterfowl, indigenous marine life and those of us who have a vested interest in the natural beauty.
Riparian landowners have been thoughtful stewards of this unique marine estuary for generations. Daily, we have taken the river’s pulse and observed the ebb and flow of tides and valued the untouched way of life for as long as anyone can remember. For questionable private and corporate gains, it is not worth risking what the state of Maine has classified as an area of ecological significance.
Tom Stewart of Penobscot is an avid kayaker, fisherman and seascape artist.