They appeared one morning last March, red-decked, white-hulled, battered working boats powering their way through the Narrows. From half a mile away you could hear the roar of their ancient, two-stroke motors. The oystermen had arrived in the Bagaduce River on the Blue Hill Peninsula, and they planned to stay.
For their first project, they chose a remote upriver area where they set out a long raft of floating, lashed-together oyster cages and secured them to the river bottom. The industrial-quality plastic and styrofoam floating bags contained many thousands of egg-sized baby mollusks.
The oystermen soon expanded their holdings, adding 14 sites this year, four of the floating worksites quite close to our shores. Then, a few weeks later, they set a 40-foot-long processing barge right in the middle of the best sailing tack from our dock out into the bay.
Now we and our nearest neighbors, the eagles, the seals, the loons and the otters, all share this pristine river with an emergent aquaculture enterprise.
And that’s just the beginning. With a total of 34 sites established throughout the river, the oystermen are on a roll. This coming spring, they plan to set new floating cages up and down the Bagaduce and throughout its bays.
It’s all quite legal, and it’s not going to be easy to keep the situation within reasonable bounds. The state controls the waterways up here, but there’s no one in state government willing to say “Wait a minute, we’ve gone too far too fast here! The narrow, winding, shallow Bagaduce River with its notoriously powerful tidal currents can’t sustain this sudden onslaught. This is too much in too short a time for such a fragile, pristine waterway to absorb.”
The way things stand now, it doesn’t take much to exploit this natural treasure for economic gain. Fifty dollars will buy you a permit to set up a 400-square-foot oyster farm in Maine waters. And there’s no need to stop at just one. You can get about as many permits as you’d like by applying for numerous locations, four for each adult member of your family.
There’s not much else to it. All you have to do is draw up a map of where you think the river channel lies, where the eelgrass beds are located and where you’d like to set your cages. Then you promise the Department of Marine Resources that you won’t unreasonably interfere with navigation in the river and get the Coast Guard’s OK for your navigation marking devices.
Finally, you notify landowners within 300 feet of your worksite that you’ll be growing oysters in their backyards (but, not to worry, those folks have no say in the matter). In all likelihood, your project will be approved sight-unseen by an understaffed state bureaucracy.
The easiest approach is to go ahead, do your thing, and if you violate any of the few regulations that do govern this operation, just ask for forgiveness and promise to do better next time. That’s what happened this summer.
The strong tidal currents kept drawing the oyster cages to the middle of the river’s narrow channel, creating a navigation hazard. As one oysterman admitted to me, they hadn’t gotten it right yet, but they promised to correct things “next year.” And now that the winter ice has set in, the equipment and vessel the oyster farmers left behind have wrought havoc with the river and with shore properties.
But there’s no need to be overly worried about any consequences for such negligent behavior. Because, as one neighbor eloquently put it, “There don’t seem to be any penalties, fines or repercussions for the oystermen because of their lack of good judgment. What incentive is there for them be responsible stewards of the river?”
It’s painful for me to write about these things. It sounds like I’ve taken a “not in my backyard” or, more precisely, a “not in my back river” stance on the question.
In fact, however, I do sympathize with those who argue that these operations provide jobs in the face of the chronically high unemployment in our state. They feel that these enterprising marine farmers, all born and raised here, ought to be able to make a decent living in their native waters.
In their view, the state’s waterways are public commodities, and exploiting their economic potential serves the public good. But still I must ask, do these ever-expanding operations employing only a handful of people justify the commercial impact already so evident up and down our river?
This conflicted situation in our community affects me in a very personal way. I came to this beautiful, faraway place seeking sanctuary, and on these shores I’ve found a quiet refuge for my soul. Here my heart is calmed, and prayer comes easily. In this river and on its banks wild things find shelter, solitude is possible, and peace rides on the breeze that flows down every shoreline path.
Surely, I would prefer that this watery wilderness remain only lightly touched by humans and that the aquatic farmers find some other, more open and larger body of water in which to grow their oysters. But it’s already too late for that. The oystermen aren’t going anywhere, and the issue that remains to be settled is the size of their future operations.
It’s up to us, neighbors and community members, to bring some kind of proportion to the situation.
Opposing the fishery’s expansion also will come with a price. People will draw lines, take sides and impugn one another’s motives. And because I’ll be right in the middle of it, one thing’s for sure: The blessed peace we’ve found on this river’s wild banks is clearly threatened by the looming conflict.
Edward Dufresne lives by the Bagaduce River on Johnson Point in Penobscot. A Lutheran pastor and licensed Episcopal priest, his essays can be found at EdwardDufresne.com.