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Politics

Aquaculture, Traditional Fishing Square Off At Public Hearing On Bill To Review Maine's Lease Process

Aquaculture Expansion
Robert F. Bukaty
/
AP file
In this October 2008 file photo, a salmon farmer makes his rounds near floating pens containing thousands of Atlantic salmon in Eastport, Maine.

Tensions over Maine's aquaculture industry again spilled into the Legislature on Tuesday as lawmakers held a public hearing on a proposal that would conduct a broad review of the way state regulators' approve leases.

The bill is a concept draft that seeks a sweeping overhaul and review of how aquaculture projects are vetted and approved by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Critics say the approval process of projects along Maine's vast coastline is too permissive, resulting in sprawling aquaculture farms that conflict with the state's traditional fishing industries, such as lobstering.

Jon Lewis, a Boothbay resident who worked as the agency's director for aquaculture for 23 years, told lawmakers on the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee that the disputes over projects are on the rise.

"If anyone tells you conflict does not exist, is not increasing, is at an acceptable level, or is being driven only by rich, shorefront property owners from away, I encourage you to ask them how many public hearings they have attended in the last 10 years," Lewis said in support of the bill.

Lewis was hired as a consultant for Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage Foundation, a group that has been critical of several lease projects.

Workers and business owners in aquaculture say the bill is a disingenuous ploy that could stifle growth in an industry worth roughly $2 billion in 2019.

The Department of Marine Resources also opposes the bill, saying its proposed review is overly broad, open-ended and counterproductive, while its proposed limits on lease sizes could scuttle projects involving fin fish such as salmon and trout.

Lawmakers will continue reviewing the bill over the coming weeks.

Corrected: April 13, 2021 at 2:57 PM EDT
Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage Foundation President Rock Alley is not sponsoring the review bill.