Battle between oyster farmers and lobstermen headed to court

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — A Maine lobstering group has promised to fight the approval of an oyster farm off the state’s southern coast that has become part of a protracted battle over access to the water.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources approved a lease of about 35 acres in Maquoit Bay on Dec. 19 for Mere Point Oyster Co. The state uses a leasing system to allow people raising seafood to use state-owned waters to grow shellfish such as oysters and mussels.

Many Maine lobster fishermen opposed the application because they fear it will take away their access to the bay bottom where they trap lobsters. Some have also said the project is symptomatic of an aquaculture industry they think is growing too fast for the state and will make it difficult to catch Maine’s signature seafood.

Opponents of the project are filing an appeal in court to attempt to stop it, said Crystal Canney, a spokesperson for the group.

“The group of concerned citizens and those who make their living in the fishing community met the unreasonable interference criteria to have this application denied — but DMR favored aquaculture at the expense of the traditional fisheries,” she said.

Dan Devereaux, one of the owners of Mere Point Oyster Co., said the company plans to begin the expansion in the spring. The company’s combined leases currently total about 1 acre at present, he said.

The new leases would be off Brunswick, about 25 miles north of Portland, in a bay that is about 3,000 acres total, Devereaux said. Maine’s approval of the farm was an evidence-based decision and will hold up in court, he said.

“They are not necessarily going to be putting a financial burden on Mere Point Oyster Co., but they are going to be putting a burden on the state of Maine and the taxpayers,” he said.

The conflict over oyster farming is happening as aquaculture grows in Maine and the lobster industry faces new restrictions. Maine had 125 active aquaculture leases, totaling more than 1,400 acres, last year — an increase from 108 leases a decade ago. Farmers grow oysters, mussels, seaweed and other seafood items.

Meanwhile, lobstermen are facing potentially restrictive new regulations designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. That has caused some lobstermen to call for protection of inshore lobstering areas where whales aren’t as likely to venture.

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