Southport couple seeks experimental lease for kelp farming in Sheepscot River

Morning Star Fisheries looking for state approval for Ebenecook Harbor site
Posted:  Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 8:15am
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A former shrimp fisherman wants to grow kelp in Ebenecook Harbor off Southport Island. In 2013, Alex Hutchins set his sights on another winter maritime activity after a moratorium was placed on Gulf of Maine shrimp fishing. Hutchins and his wife, Jodi Brewer, discovered the Island Institute, which for the past 36 years has helped Maine’s island and coastal communities diversify their maritime industries. The couple became interested in kelp farming and was accepted into the institute’s program.

The couple used their new-found knowledge in aquaculture by opening Morning Star Fisheries. They received a limited purpose aquaculture state license for waters at nearby Boston Island. The fishery harvested and sold kelp this spring to a Portland distributor. But now the business is looking for a new location. Morning Star wants to move to Ebenecook Harbor. The business applied for an experimental three-year license for harvesting sugar, horsetail, winged and strap kelp in a 40-foot by 1,000-foot section of the Sheepscot River.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources is reviewing their application. On Nov. 26, the department held an  adjudicatory hearing at Southport Town Hall. An adjudicatory hearing is one which legal rights and responsibilities are determined. It differs from most public hearings by requiring audio record, witnesses swear to tell the truth, evidence must be relevant, and the public may question witnesses.

During the hearing, 14 people attended a two hour and twenty minute session sponsored by the DMR. Brewer testified Morning Star’s proposal would have both economic and ecological benefits. The experimental business would provide another opportunity for fishermen facing decreasing opportunities. She also shared research supported by the DMR and Island Institute which showed kelp farming had a favorable environmental impact on the ocean.

During the public testimony, marine scientist Suzy Arnold testified on behalf of the applicants. She works on the impacts of climate change, ocean acidification on marine resources and fisheries-dependent communities at the Island Institute. She described both Brewer and Hutchins as qualified aquaculturists and stewards of the environment. “Our goal is training those who will be positive leaders in the aquaculture industry. Jodi Brewer is one of those representatives,” she said. “We’ve provided her with the support to make her operation a success, and she demonstrated her commitment to good water quality by volunteering her Boston Island site for our ocean acidification research.”

Several locals also testified they supported aquaculture. But many thought the proposed location would unnecessarily disrupt local fishing and recreational boating. Opponents recommended the DMR approve a lease with conditions, either a different site or altering the proposed 40-foot by 1,000-foot configuration.

“I support aquaculture and believe it has a positive impact on the environment, but nevertheless, I oppose this project. It has unfair costs regarding shared value resources to the community,” said William Furber, a Love Cove resident. “There are possible solutions in a larger set of objectives by considering the impact on the entire community.”

Morning Star co-owner Alex Hutchins explained alternative sites were considered, but none met their needs. He explained many sites in Southport and Boothbay Harbor were already closed to their industry. “There is limited space available. Other locations were either incredibly too deep or unfeasible. Ebenecook provides us with the right depth as well as the open area we need,” Hutchins said.

Southport lobsterman Guy Randlett has fished in Ebenecook Harbor since 1980. He also fished for shrimp for 29 years before the moratorium. He urged the DMR to approve the proposal without any added conditions. “I believe in kelp farming and commend them for this. And I don’t see any significant navigation problems,” he said.

A hearing officer will evaluate the evidence and write a report which includes a finding of fact, conclusion of laws, and a proposed decision. Following the meeting,  the DMR didn’t provide a timetable for when Commissioner Patrick Keliher would make a decision.