Fred A. Bernstein

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Oysters Seeking Home on Quiet Maine Island

Cultivation is legal, but it isn't scenic

Published in The New York Times, August 13, 2007

The Basin, a 500-acre inlet on the west side of this 23-square-mile island, is a favorite spot for kayakers and naturalists, who invariably describe it as pristine. True, hundreds of "pot buoys" - brightly colored Styrofoam cylinders - float on the surface, guiding lobstermen to traps, or pots, below.

But on Vinalhaven, many people don't seem to notice the buoys. "We're so used to them here, and people think they're kind of pretty," said David Weller, who has lived on Vinalhaven for 18 years. The buoys, he said, are considered "just part of the scenery."

But now Mr. Weller is trying to bring oyster farming to the Basin, which is surrounded by land owned by about a dozen families. Mr. Weller's application - for a farm that could produce a million oysters a year - has created an outcry.

Dozens of people on this island (reached by ferry from Rockland, Me.) have rallied to stop Mr. Weller and his partner, Melissa Berry, from farming in the Basin and someone may have already sabotaged his nascent operation.

Earlier this year, the state granted Mr. Weller and Ms. Berry a 10-year lease that would allow them to float hundreds of bags of oysters on about three acres in the middle of the Basin. To Mr. Weller, the bags, made of black plastic mesh, are far less jarring, visually, than the lobstermen's buoys.

"I love the basin as much as anyone," said Mr. Weller, who said he had agreed to numerous conditions to preserve the environment. He said he even posted a bond so that if he causes any damage, "the state can hunt me down." But earlier this year, 75 people attended a public hearing about the oyster farm, and no one spoke in favor of it, according to Lucy McCarthy, the executive director of the Vinalhaven Land Trust.

Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, in Hallowell, said: "The real issue on Vinalhaven is that wealthy summer folk want to use the waterfront for recreational purposes, not commercial purposes. We have that conflict up and down the coast of Maine."

Burke Lynch, who runs a local kayaking company that takes tourists into the Basin, said the oyster farm would be like "defacing a priceless work of fine art."

Tristan Jackson, a teacher on Vinalhaven who lives on the island year-round, said: "I think oyster farming is great. But not in that spot. The natural value of the Basin is far greater than its commercial value."

The owners of land adjoining the Basin are particularly riled. It's true that most of them can't see the Basin from their houses. But that's because they chose to keep the shoreline undeveloped, Ms. McCarthy said.

Over 30 years, the trust has persuaded many of the owners to grant easements, deed restrictions that prohibit building anything that can be seen from shore.

"It's a pristine place, and this would really ruin the view," said David Strawson, a North Carolinian whose family owns 45 acres alongside the Basin. A trust controlled by 17 members of his family granted an easement preventing construction within 300 feet of the spruce-ringed water.

By granting the easements, the owners have given up something that other residents of Maine's coast covet: the right to build waterfront houses. The right is, in some cases, worth millions of dollars.

According to Ms. McCarthy of the land trust, "It's our obligation to stand by the commitment these people have made."

The trouble, Mr. Weller said, is that the landowners don't own the land under the water - the state does. "And the state can license it for aquaculture," he said.

In fact, the state carefully reviewed Mr. Weller's existing oyster farming operation in Old Harbor Pond, a body of water ringed by houses. There, Mr. Weller is growing oysters in about 75 bags. But the fact that the state hasn't tested the water quality in the pond means that before the oysters can be sold, they have to be transferred to open water for a period of weeks.

Mr. Weller said that if he can't do that in the Basin, he will have to do it in an inlet on the far side of the island that would be difficult for him to monitor.

Earlier this year, as a kind of dry run, he floated two bags of baby oysters in the Basin. The bags were so unobtrusive, he said, "You'd have to be standing in just the right place, with binoculars, and know what you were looking for, to see them."

But last weekend, his two bags, containing about 1,000 oysters, plus buoys and moorings, disappeared, he said. Residents, he suggested, "were trying to tell me that I can't do anything in their water."

Mr. Weller conceded that after nearly two decades of living on Vinalhaven year-round, he is still considered an outsider. "Some people call me ´┐Ża summer jerk,' " he said.

In granting Mr. Weller's license, the state considered whether the oyster farm would have a negative impact on the use of publicly owned lands.

Most of the land around the Basin is privately owned, though subject to the easements. Still, the easements accomplish much of what public ownership would accomplish, at no cost to the government (although grantors of easements may take tax deductions). Owners who agree to keep land undeveloped, without requiring the state to maintain the property, are performing a public service, Ms. McCarthy said.

Samantha Horn Olsen, the aquaculture policy coordinator of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said that she has heard "aquaculture compared to strip mining. That is really, really wrong." She said she plans to hold a public meeting on Vinalhaven later this month, "to listen to people's concerns but also to make sure they have the right information about environmental quality."

Because oysters are "filter feeders" - ingesting plankton from the water as it washes over them - Mr. Weller will not be introducing food, or any other chemicals, into the ecosystem, he said.

In past decades, salmon farmers, who poured fish food and chemicals into the water, gave aquaculture a bad name. "We made some mistakes," said Mr. Belle of the Aquaculture Association. But Mr. Weller, who studied aquaculture at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970s, said: "There's been a steep learning curve. This is nothing like the aquaculture that people remember."

Stephen S. Gray, a business executive who is building a large new summer house near the Basin, said he thinks aquaculture ought to be encouraged. Maine's lobster harvest has declined in recent years, and stocks of other fish like cod, haddock and flounder have been severely depleted. "If we don't explore aquaculture, we'll all be eating corn," Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Weller, who said he had reported the disappearance of his oyster bags and other equipment to the state, agreed. "We can't keep taking from the ocean," he said, pointing at the fishing boat-filled Vinalhaven harbor, "without giving something back.