They appeared one morning last March, red-decked, white-hulled, battered working boats powering their way through the Narrows. From half a mile away you could hear the roar of their ancient, two-stroke motors. The oystermen have arrived in the Bagaduce River, and they plan to stay.
For their first project, they chose a remote upriver area where they set out a long raft of floating, lashed-together oyster cages and secured them to the river bottom. The industrial-quality plastic and styrofoam floating bags contain many thousands of egg-sized baby mollusks. The oystermen soon expanded their holdings, adding fourteen sites this year, four of the floating worksites quite close to our shores. Then, a few weeks later, they set a forty-foot long processing barge right in the middle of the best sailing tack from our dock out into the bay. Now we and our nearest neighbors, the eagles, the seals, the loons and the otters, all share this pristine river with an emergent aquaculture enterprise.
And that’s just the beginning. With a total of thirty-four sites established throughout the river, the oystermen are on a roll. This coming spring, they plan to set new floating cages up and down the Bagaduce and throughout its bays. It’s all quite legal and it’s not going to be easy to keep the situation within reasonable bounds. In the past few years, our state has changed its slogan from “Maine, the Way Life Should Be,” to “Maine Is Open for Business,” making it hard to tell the regulators from the promoters of these operations. The state controls the waterways up here but there’s no one in state government willing to say “Wait a minute, we’ve gone too far too fast here! The narrow, winding, shallow Bagaduce River with its notoriously powerful tidal currents can’t sustain this sudden onslaught. This is too much in too short a time for such a fragile, pristine waterway to absorb.“
The way things stand now, it doesn’t take much to exploit this natural treasure for economic gain. Fifty dollars will buy you a permit to set up a 400 square-foot oyster farm in Maine waters. And there’s no need to stop at just one. You can get about as many permits as you’d like by applying for numerous locations, four for each adult member of your family. Then you can cluster them in threes and really stake your claim on the river. There’s not much else to it. All you have to do is to draw up a map of where you think the river channel lies, where the eel grass beds are located and where you’d like to set your cages. Then you promise the Department of Marine Resources that you won’t unreasonably interfere with navigation in the river and get the Coast Guard’s OK for your navigation marking devices. Finally, you notify landowners within 300 feet of your work-site that you’ll be growing oysters in their back yards, (but, not to worry, those folks have no say in the matter). In all likelihood, your project will be approved sight-unseen by an understaffed state bureaucracy.
And there’s no need for concern that too many folks will find out in advance about your plans for the river. You can do it all pretty much under the radar. The type of license you’re applying for doesn’t require a public hearing. If the past is any guide, your application won’t even be posted on the state agency’s web-site until after you’ve been farming for several weeks: there are too many other demands on the short-handed department to keep public notices current.
The easiest approach is to go ahead, do your thing and if you violate any of the few regulations that do govern this operation, just ask for forgiveness and promise to do better next time. That’s what happened this summer. The strong tidal currents kept drawing the oyster cages to the middle of the river’s narrow channel, creating a navigation hazard. The oystermen admitted they hadn’t gotten it right yet, but promised to correct things “next year.” And now that the winter ice has set in, the equipment and vessel the oyster farmers left behind have wrought havoc with the river and with shore properties. But there’s no need to be overly worried about any consequences for such negligent behavior. Because, as one neighbor eloquently put it, “There don’t seem to be any penalties, fines or repercussions for the oystermen because of their lack of good judgement. What incentive is there for them be responsible stewards of the river?”
What’s most telling is that it’s so hard to find anyone in a position of authority advocating for the river itself. Nobody in Augusta seems to be asking the important questions and insisting on answers concerning the river’s health and well-being in these circumstances. No one is determined to use their authority to set and enforce reasonable boundaries to protect and preserve the Bagaduce. No one in the regulating agencies seems willing to say to the aquaculturists: “We will make sure the river’s eelgrass beds aren’t damaged by your oystering operations. Your telling us there won’t be any problems isn’t good enough. We will verify that you’re not damaging the river’s health. We won’t allow you to farm in the vicinity of where, for generations, the river’s harbor seals give birth and nurse their pups. They deserve to be protected.”
“And we’re also going to make sure you see to it that the material you put in the water doesn’t work loose and become a hazard in the river’s narrow channels. We won’t permit you to leave vessels and gear in the river all winter long to be dragged back and forth by the ice as they tear up the river bottom. We won’t support a culture of neglect. If you violate the regulations, your licenses and leases will be revoked. We can’t allow the leasing process to go on expanding without limits. We’re here to protect and preserve a public trust. We have a responsibility not to let this precious gem of a river be taken over and changed in such dramatic, perhaps irreparable ways.” No one in authority, it seems, is saying any of this.
It’s painful for me to write about these things. It sounds like I’ve taken a “not in my back yard,” or, more precisely, a “not in my back river” stance on the question. In fact, however, I do sympathize with those who argue that these operations provide jobs in the face of the chronically high unemployment in our state. They feel that these enterprising marine farmers, all born and raised here, ought to be able to make a decent living in their native waters. In their view, the state’s waterways are public commodities and exploiting their economic potential serves the public good. But still I must ask, do these ever-expanding operations employing only a handful of people justify the commercial impact already so evident up and down our river?
This conflicted situation in our community affects me in a very personal way. I came to this beautiful, far-away place seeking sanctuary and on these shores I’ve found a quiet refuge for my soul. Here my heart is calmed and prayer comes easily. In this river and on its banks wild things find shelter, solitude is possible and peace rides on the breeze that flows down every shoreline path. Precisely because it is such an uncommon refuge of tranquil beauty, our river is in real and deep trouble. Because it is such an extraordinary resource, it has become a threatened place, a rare and fragile setting that can easily be destroyed.
And so I feel a deep responsibility for this tide-driven estuary that has such power to delight the heart and restore the soul. It richly deserves to be valued and protected, to be used with moderation and respect. I will do what I can to help find some equilibrium between the preservation and the exploitation of this magnificent river’s resources. Surely, I would prefer that this watery wilderness remain only lightly touched by humans and that the aquatic farmers find some other, more open and larger body of water in which to grow their oysters. But it’s already too late for that. The oystermen aren’t going anywhere and the issue that remains to be settled is the size of their future operations.
It’s up to us, neighbors and community members, to bring some kind of proportion to the situation. The state isn’t going to do it for us, so we must do it for and with the state. The government has not yet developed the laws and so far chooses not to employ the means to maintain a reasonable balance between these colliding interests. It’s up to us, because if we to fail to act, the oystermen will be allowed to continue without limits to exploit the river.
But opposing the fishery’s expansion will also come with a price. People will draw lines, take sides and impugn one another’s motives. And because I’ll be right in the middle of it, one thing’s for sure: the blessed peace we’ve found on this river’s wild banks is clearly threatened by the looming conflict.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2014