PENOBSCOT, Maine — Oysters have developed a heavy presence in a tidal estuary that separates three Blue Hill Peninsula towns, and not everybody is celebrating their arrival.
It’s not the mere presence of the mollusks that some people object to so much. It’s the way they have moved in.
The oysters are being cultivated in dozens of approved aquaculture sites in the Bagaduce River, many of which have been concentrated along a narrow stretch of the river near the reversing falls, between Green Island and Bear Head, that abuts Brooksville, Penobscot and Sedgwick.
The rapid increase over the past few years in the number of oyster growing sites has alarmed some area residents, who fear it could have an adverse impact on the estuary and their enjoyment of it. Many of those who have voiced objections say they are not opposed to aquaculture, but they want to make sure it is done responsibly and to a scale that the environment and local residents can support.
“My concern is not really aquaculture,” Penobscot resident Tom Adamo said last week. “It’s the balance of use of the public body of water by all stakeholders, which includes community members who are not riparian owners, oystermen who are trying to make a living, [and] tourists who are vital to the economy.”
Others, many of them fishermen, have countered that shellfish aquaculture is good for the environment. It also provides valuable economic opportunities for local residents, who have difficulty finding other jobs in the area, they argue.
“Since time began, my family has been making a living on the river,” said Jesse Leach, who has been cultivating oysters in the Bagaduce since 1997. “What’s wrong with making money?”
Leach said that shellfish aquaculture is well suited for the Bagaduce, where water temperatures rise into the 70-degree-range in the summer. Oysters grow naturally in the river and do not need or receive any medications, chemicals or feed from aquaculture operators, he said. Oysters help maintain the river’s water quality, he added, because they are filter feeders.
It is not just oyster aquaculture operations that have increased along the river in recent years, Leach said. More houses have been built along the Bagaduce shorefront and more brightly colored kayaks can be seen along the river than when he started growing oysters. And yet it is the presence of people growing oysters in the river that many people object to, he said.
“We listen to chain saws. We listen to lawnmowers. We listen to trucks backing up,” Leach said. “Now the landowners are trying to stop [aquaculture].”
The issue has been divisive enough that the Maine Department of Marine Resources has held two public meetings about it at the local elementary school this year, one at the end of April and another one last week. More than 170 people showed up at the spring meeting and approximately 70 attended the meeting held July 31.
The vast majority of the sites in the Bagaduce have been approved for limited purpose aquaculture licenses, which many refer to as LPAs. These types of sites, which are different from traditional, multi-year standard leases issued by the state, have to be renewed every year and can be no bigger than 400 square feet.
According to information posted on the DMR website, there are approximately 160 active limited purpose sites in Maine. Of those, 39 (nearly a quarter of the statewide total) have been issued for the Bagaduce River, all of them within the past seven years and 26 of them in the past two years.
The Leach family — Jesse, his wife, Dedra, and his son Stuart — has 11 limited purpose licenses in the Bagaduce. Eight other fishermen each have multiple licenses for the river. No single person can hold more than four limited purpose licenses anywhere in Maine.
DMR also has approved two standard shellfish leases and two experimental aquaculture leases in the Bagaduce. Leach has one of those standard leases for a four-acre area near Bagaduce Falls, where he says he can grow up to one million harvestable oysters every 18 months.
Property owners within 300 feet of potential limited purpose license areas must be notified of each pending proposal and have two weeks to comment after DMR receives the application. As long as the proposal meets certain criteria, including the use of properly marked gear and not interfering unreasonably with other activities on the water, the applicant then is issued a license, without a public hearing or an environmental survey of the site.
The review and approval process for limited purpose sites, according to DMR officials, is considered less arduous and lengthy than the process for getting a multi-year standard aquaculture lease approved.
At the meeting last week, Adamo said the growth of aquaculture along the river is not being managed properly. He said that the day of the meeting, 100 black mesh oyster bags came floating down the river and washed up on the shore in front of his house, where no aquaculture activities are permitted.
“Some of us are ridiculed for wanting to be good stewards of what God put here on Earth,” he said.
Tom Stewart, another Penobscot resident, echoed many of Adamo’s concerns. He said this past winter, one oyster grower left his gear in the river when the river froze. The oyster grower was unable to get to his gear and the moving ice scattered it in multiple directions, beyond the boundaries of his licensed site.
“Some of that gear was not retrieved,” Stewart said. “That was just outrageous to us.”
He said there needs to be a better review and community input process before oyster sites are approved and that the sites need better official monitoring after licenses are issued.
“It’s about being mindful and being good stewards,” Stewart said. “There is room for aquaculture, but not at a large scale. We’re looking for balance.”
DMR officials say a total of approximately 1,280 acres of state waters are under lease for all types of approved aquaculture operations. The vast majority of it is dedicated through standard leases to shellfish or finfish cultivation — 608 acres for shellfish and 665 acres for finfish species.
Less than seven acres throughout Maine has been leased for seaweed aquaculture operations and a statewide total of less than 1.5 acres, including all those in the Bagaduce, has been set aside for limited purpose licenses.