PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A proposed change to the law in Maine would make it more difficult to establish aquaculture operations at a time when the state's fish and shellfish farming business is growing.
Maine uses a leasing system to allow people raising seafood to use state-owned waters to grow products such as oysters and mussels. Democratic state Sen. David Miramant, of Camden, is proposing a bill that would make approval criteria for new aquaculture leases stricter.
Miramant's bill would require new lease applicants to demonstrate that no practical alternative exists that would have less of an impact on existing uses. The proposal would also reduce the maximum lease acreage a person can hold from 1,000 acres to 50 acres.
The proposal comes as some lobstermen are sounding the alarm that the increase in fish and shellfish farming in Maine's waters could limit their ability to lay traps. Lobster fishing is one of the most important industries in Maine, and it faces numerous challenges, prompting some in the business to push back against the expansion of aquaculture.
Miramant said Thursday he's responding to the concerns from the lobster fishing industry. His proposal is expected to go before the state Legislative Council on Oct. 23 to determine if it will go forward.
"We're really opening up this discussion," Miramant said. "To get a good sense of where we are now, after this being a very small but increasing area of interest."
The state had 125 active aquaculture leases, totaling more than 1,400 acres, last year. That's an increase from 108 leases a decade ago. Of the 125 leases, 91 are for shellfish, 25 are for finfish and nine are for seaweed. Salmon, mussels, oysters and other popular seafood staples are raised by farmers in Maine.
The Maine Aquaculture Association is keeping a close eye on proposed changes, executive director Sebastian Belle said. He disputed the idea that aquaculture is growing too fast for the state.
Belle said the growth of aquaculture is important for Maine's seaside communities, which are contending with sea level rise and development pressure.
"Aquaculture is just another tool for working waterfronts to respond to those pressures," he said. "It's another way for those communities to keep year-round employment and keep young people."
A lobster fishing group submitted a petition to the Maine Department of Marine Resources earlier this year calling for a moratorium on aquaculture leases of 10 acres or more, among other changes to state regulations. But the department ruled in July that such a moratorium would be "arbitrary" to impose.
"Aquaculture is the new shiny object. I'm not opposed to aquaculture, but as with any fishery it needs some new management," said lobster harvester Julie Eaton, of Stonington.