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Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lobstermen don't like mussel-farm plan

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.


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Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette
Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Tollef Olson of Aqua Farms LLC throws ice on bags of mussels at his Maine Wharf location in Portland on Monday. Olson has applied to set up a mussel-growing operation on the east side of Hope Island.

A Casco Bay mussel farmer wants to expand to a new location near Hope Island, raising concerns by Chebeague Island fishermen that they'll be forced out of prime lobster grounds.

Tollef Olson, who owns Aqua Farms LLC, is seeking a 10-year lease from the state for about two acres of ocean bottom on the east side of Hope Island.

Olson downplays the controversy, saying fishermen should be able to work around his new mussel rafts without problems.

"It's one obstacle they'll have to fish around," he said. "When you look at the economy of what we create, I don't think it's too big of an interference."

The fishermen, however, note that Olson already has mussel rafts on the west side of Bangs Island and the east side of Clapboard Island, both near Chebeague. They worry that mussel farming will keep expanding and push them aside.

"Every man on this island is opposed to that lease, as far as I know," said Ernie Burgess, a Chebeague lobsterman. "We are not going to move over. This ain't going to happen."

The issue is a new one for Casco Bay, which never had a mussel aquaculture industry until Olson installed his rafts on Bangs Island six years ago.

Mussels grow on ropes under each raft and feed on plankton floating in the water. They are harvested year-round.

There are about a half-dozen mussel aquaculture operations in Maine, and Olson's is the farthest south.

Olson's mussels are known as Bangs Island mussels and are sold in expensive restaurants in the Portland area and around the nation. They are premium mussels, much better than those harvested in the wild, said Nick Alfiero of Harbor Fish Market in Portland. A few years ago, most of the farmed mussels he sold came from Prince Edward Island in Canada. Today, most are from Maine.

"They can more than produce the better mussels. I can't imagine any negatives," he said, adding, "These rafts don't take up much space. They are the size of a living room, basically."

Olson wants to install three rafts, each about 1,600 square feet. He thinks each raft could produce 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of mussels annually.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources will hold a public hearing on Chebeague Island on Dec. 1, and Chebeague's fishermen plan to voice their opposition.

James Ross, 77, said he has been setting traps near Hope Island his entire career, just as his father did before him.

"It really is a prime area for lobstering," he said. "It has always been a traditional place where we have fished."

There are 38 licensed lobster boats on the island, and all of them at some point of the year have traps in the proposed lease area, said Burgess, 61. He said he has had 15 traps in the area, and the mussel rafts in total would displace 150 to 200 traps.

The waters around Chebeague are already overcrowded with lobstermen and their traps, so every acre makes a difference, Burgess said.

He's upset with the whole concept of the state leasing the ocean bottom to aquaculture operations.

"I wonder why it is," he asked, "in this day and age, that we have to privatize what is a public resource by giving people the right to displace other people who are already there fishing?"

But Olson said the area has a muddy bottom and is poor habitat for lobsters, which prefer a rocky bottom. He said lobsters only migrate through the area.

He estimates that the rafts will displace only about 10 traps. Those traps will be just as productive if they are moved away from the rafts a bit, he said.

Olson said the area has clean water because the current comes straight from the ocean. The depth and current speed also promote maximum mussel production, he said.

Olson has one full-time employee and hires several workers for the fall and spring seedings, when juvenile mussels are attached to 35-foot-long lines. Each raft has 450 lines.

Olson said Casco Bay used to have a lot of mussel draggers, but the industry faded because the quality wasn't always up to market standards and the harvest methods depleted the resource.

"As the other fisheries die off, it's hard for the industry to support itself," he said. "We need new fisheries and creative methods of fishing to sustain the industry and the infrastructure. We have to be willing to evolve and find new ways to fish and to protect the ocean and the resources."

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: tbell@pressherald.com

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