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Guest Columns: Two views on aquaculture and Maine lobstermen

seaweed aquaculture

Seaweed aquaculture businesses have blossomed in the state due in part to increased consumer interest in this "super food." Maine Sea Grant photo.

By Crystal Canney, Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage

Aquaculture is a rapidly growing industry in Maine. As recent articles in Landings have pointed out, in 2018 it was valued at nearly $72 million. And, over the last three years, applications for licenses and leases have dramatically increased, by three-fold. As Landings pointed out in a July article, “Aquaculture Leases – Understanding the Process,” if you receive alerts from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), your phone will be constantly abuzz. Lobstermen up and down the coast are starting to take notice. Aquaculture presents a new opportunity along our working waterfront. But, this emerging industry should not develop at the expense of existing traditional uses or in a vacuum without regard to those who use the waters for recreation. “Aquaculture: Surge in Maine Due to Many Factors,” published in August, discussed some of the causes for the recent growth. For example, NOAA funding is available for those interested in experimenting with new techniques and starting up their businesses. Those are taxpayer dollars supporting these grants. The state has also made the leasing process simple and inexpensive. This has resulted in an unleveled playing field for fishermen and all of those who make a living off the water. Lobstering is limited to a particular zone and those zones have a limited number of licenses that are issued each year. It is not easy if you want to enter the fishery. There are apprenticeship requirements and long waits until a spot opens up in the zone you desire. Additionally, there are limits on the number of traps that you can fish and you have to pay for each trap tag each year. There are restrictions on days of the week when you are allowed to fish and for certain times of year as well. The rules for aquaculture leases are much less prohibitive. An aquaculture leaseholder can harvest at any time and there are currently no limits set on the number of leases that can be issued in the state. For a standard lease, you have to pay a nominal fee that allows you to maintain the lease for up to 20 years. If you want to sell your business, you can transfer it to another owner, in or out of the state. Lobster licenses are non-transferable. Aquaculture leases can also be aggregated so that a single owner or entity can hold rights to up to 1000 acres of ocean bottom. This last fact is of great concern. Lobstering is a local business. It is owner-operated and supports independent small business owners. It is controlled locally by zone councils that aim to protect the character of each zone and the interests of the fishermen. Aquaculture leases are controlled by the state. The reason that the state manages state waters is to hold those waters in the public trust for all to benefit from. It does not make sense that this resource held in the public trust can be leased out for private use. Private leasing of a public resource is not only problematic but also begs the question of who owns the oceans. Lobstering is a fixed gear fishery that has to move around depending on the lobsters and changing ocean conditions. They need access to this resource that is supposedly held in trust by the state. As noted in Landings’ “Aquaculture Leases – Understanding the Process,” “be sure to monitor aquaculture lease notices from the state. As someone who relies on the ocean for your living, your feedback on leases proposed in your area are essential for the state to understand and can affect the approval process.” The challenge is that it is not always easy or convenient to attend public hearings regarding lease applications. For a single lease, there can be multiple meetings. Right now, the process puts the burden on the lobstermen who are displaced. Instead, the burden should be on the applicant to work with local lobstermen to determine the best location for a potential lease. The current process gives an unfair advantage to aquaculture applicants. Let us not lose sight of the fact that lobster landings last year totaled 485 million dollars, the top value of all landings statewide by a considerable margin. Aquaculture is something that lobstermen need to be watchful over and vocal about in order to ensure that the growth of the aquaculture industry does not occur unchecked with dire consequences for the state’s most valued fishery.

By Sebastian Belle, Maine Aquaculture Association

Maine has a long tradition of bustling working waterfronts. For generations Maine’s coastal communities have relied on the ocean to provide employment and healthy seafood that is sold all over the world. Although those traditions continue today, they do so in a rapidly changing world. Anyone who works on the water daily can see the environmental change but then take a moment and look back toward shore. Maine’s coastal communities have changed over time and are currently changing fast. Maine is the second-most-popular state in the country to retire to. We are the oldest state in the country by median age and many of our young folks are moving out of state or to cities in order to seek a living. Those population shifts are directly impacting coastal communities and Maine’s working waterfronts. Maine’s new residents often view the coast through a different lens than those who go down to the sea to make a living. Typically, they think the lobster boat or oyster skiff is quaint until it starts up at four o’clock in the morning or brings back a load of wet, stinking gear to the dock next door. Not quite what the postcard implied or the real estate agent mentioned during the property showing. Maine’s working waterfronts and the hard-working people who use them are being pressured by these changes up and down the coast right at a time when aquaculture has started to grow. For many years aquaculture in Maine was stagnant, occupying roughly 1,200 acres statewide. In the last five years we have seen some growth, with acreage increasing to around 1,500 statewide. That’s about the size of the Rockland harbor. In that space Maine sea farmers generate over 700 jobs and about $130 million annually. We are small in comparison to the size and value of the lobster industry. Interestingly, the fastest-growing group of folks experimenting with aquaculture is in fact commercial fishermen or their sons and daughters. If you think of aquaculture as a fishery, it is one of the last ones on the coast of Maine that is not closed to new entrants. As the marine environment changes, families who make their livings on the water are always looking for new ways to continue their maritime heritage. Aquaculture has existed alongside commercial fishermen in Maine for over 45 years. Certainly, there have been instances when a lease application has raised concerns from a local fisherman. In those cases, the fisherman and the sea farmer have generally worked the issue out and learned to live with each other. Under Maine state law fishermen always take precedence. It is simply against the law for the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to issue a lease if it does not meet seven criteria, one of which is that no significant fishery occurs at the proposed lease site. Assertions that aquaculture is taking away lobster bottom are simply untrue. In fact, leases can be denied for six other reasons that basically add up to the fact that no significant activity or special environmental habitat can occur in the area of the proposed lease. DMR has a low denial rate for lease applications for one simple reason. In order to apply for a lease, you have to go through a long, complicated, expensive, and at times intimidating, application process. When was the last time you faced cross examination by highly paid lawyers, public relations consultants and expert witnesses in order to apply for your lobster license? Applicants must invest a lot of time and resources before applying because no one in their right mind would go through that process to apply for a lease if their project doesn’t meet the criteria. Aquaculture — farming the sea — is just another way to keep those family traditions going and Maine’s working waterfronts alive and viable in the face of changing coastal demographics. If Maine’s working waterfronts allow themselves to be divided by wealthy landowners who want to protect “their” viewscape, the only people left along Maine’s coasts won’t be fishermen or sea farmers. It will be those who only view the ocean, not those who work on it.

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