State Sinks Floating Oyster Crate Farm Request for Great Bay

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NEWINGTON – A proposal to allow a floating oyster farm in the Great Bay Estuary in Broad Cove for the next 10 years has been sunk by the Fish and Game Department after numerous people and agencies opposed it.

Negative impact on recreation and navigation were cited among the reasons, based on lots of public input both written and oral at a public hearing.

The state has previously approved two floating oyster farms: one in Hampton Harbor and another in Little Bay.

This one was proposed for Broad Cove, which borders Fox Point and which is a section of Little Bay in the Great Bay Estuary.

The estuary, which has both salt and freshwater, was set aside by the legislature in 1945 for “Recreational” use by the public.

In his decision to deny the request of Jonathan Bunker of Colrain, Mass., Scott Mason, executive director of the department said 49 written comments were submitted during the public comment period with 39 in opposition and 10 in support.

Thirty-two opponents cited negative impact on the ability to conduct recreational activities; 27 cited negative visual impact; 17 cited negative impact on the environment, specific to bird waste on the tops of the crates and to water quality; 16 cited negative property value impact and three commenters, citing negative property value impact, were found to have direct view of the site, including residents represented by the Town of Newington.

There were eight comments which cited human disease risk due to increased waste from birds resting on the floating cages and the guano that would collect and eight cited human safety and welfare, for reasons such as emergency boat response and navigational hazards.

Mason noted that of the 10 comments in support, eight cited oysters improving water quality; seven cited the farm supporting local commerce; and two cited gear providing an erosion buffer.

Bunker already has a permit on the site for sunken gear for oyster farming but on March 12, the department received an application from his Bayside Oysters Farm, LLC to modify his existing marine aquaculture site to allow for the use of floating oyster cages on the eastern two acres of the site.

Floating oyster cages are something relatively new to New Hampshire waters but they have become an issue along the Eastern Seaboard as the aquaculture has developed and demand for the product has put pressure to allow for cages at the surface, as the oysters grow faster. 

The state had already done its critical site survey in 2023 looking for potential impacts to the area with an eye toward preserving eel grass and other habitat features in and around the water which benefit fish. Due to that underwater assessment being completed within two years of the current 

application for floating gear, no additional site survey was necessary, as defined in law: Fis 807.07 (d).

But Mason looked at the totality of the situation and wrote, May 17, “From the information provided, it is determined that floating gear licensed in this area would have a detrimental effect on recreational activity in Broad Cove, including but not limited to powered and non-powered boating, fishing, and swimming. It also is further determined that the floating gear could have a detrimental effect on the ability for emergency response vessels such as the Town of Newington Fire Response boat and the NHDES Oil Spill Response barge to conduct their duties.”

The application was denied due to not meeting the Standard of Review contained in Fis 807.07(j), he said.

Efforts to reach Bunker have been unsuccessful.

He had the right within 30 days of the determination to appeal and that ended on June 17.

The state Department of Fish and Game sought input outside of its agency on the application.

Tyler Jackson of the United States Coast Guard provided a Navigation Safety Risk Assessment, indicating low risk in terms of location, traffic, emergency response, anticipated environmental factors, severe and sudden environmental factors, and hydrological effects to waterways.

Chris Nash of the NH Department of Environmental Services Shellfish Program provided comment that if the applicant should decide to modify his plan to raise only sub-market sized oysters in the floating cages and request to harvest directly from the floating cages, that NH Fish and Game should consult with NHDES staff to develop appropriate conditions for such harvest to address relevant public health concerns.

Jason Domke of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Spill Response Section provided comment indicating that though there are no immediate concerns with the specific project they are aware of the potential proliferation of floating gear within the New Hampshire marine aquaculture industry. 

Dromke wrote that to address future proposals, a statement was made that shellfish held in floating gear are more likely to be impacted by surface spills, and that consideration should be made to deploy gear in such a way that a buffer from the water’s surface is in place. 

Another statement was made by Dromke that if approved, gear should be clearly marked in the event that contracted vessels, unfamiliar with navigating local waters, are mobilized to respond to a spill event. 

The final spill response statement requested that when any new marine aquaculture proposals are being considered by NH Fish and Game, that the location of Geographic Response Strategies put in place by NHDES and USCG to deploy booms in response to a spill be considered.

Also chiming in was Justin McMath of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services who provided comment requesting that the applicant develop a bird mitigation plan to minimize the fouling of gear with bird guano. 

McMath added that NHDHHS recommends that bottom cages are not stored below floating cages and only sub-market sized oysters are raised in the floating cages. 

Mason’s standard of review required that he approve only if the proposal does not conflict with or negatively impact any recreational, commercial or other use currently being conducted in the area in and around the proposed project area or does not adversely impact the value or use of private property in and around the projected area before issuing a license.

Doug Ross of Newington, a former Fish and Game Commissioner who opposed the project and owns property on the bay said it was unclear to him who Bunker would appeal to though it was possible that it would be the governor.

He noted Fish and Game is not an agency within the Department of Safety.

Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican who is not seeking re-election this fall, said to reporters this spring that he was unaware of the specific concerns related to floating oyster cages but that the state’s role would be public safety in navigation, environmental impacts while weighing the benefits of commercial enterprise.

Ross said he was pleased by the decision Tuesday.

“After all, granting a renewable 10-year floating crate oyster license effectively confiscates public property for the exclusive use of a commercial enterprise…

“I believe that as a result of Bunker’s request, which is so close to Fox Point, public awareness and resistance has significantly and legitimately increased regarding floating oyster crate farming and the many negatives associated with them. It is safe to say that traditional bottom oyster farming is, for the most part, much less controversial. As mentioned previously, my neighbor and I did not object to a bottom oyster farm directly in front of our homes. However, our position will change if the farmer seeks a license for floating crates and related staging areas,” Ross said.

Matthew Lee of the Fish and Game Department said in an email that the applicant has indicated that he plans to appeal the decision “but we haven’t begun that process yet.”

He did not immediately respond to an email request for an update Tuesday.

Ross said before the decision that in addition to lease and license fees, the Fish and Game Department gets 1 1/2¢ for each oyster harvested and there could be a financial conflict of interest for the department.

“As oystering is a lucrative enterprise we will likely see more applications for new licenses and expansion of existing farms,” Ross said.

He noted that a seafood restaurant in Kittery, Maine, charges $3.50/oyster for one variety raised in Little Bay.

“My sense is that commercial oyster farmers will move as quickly as possible before residents realize what’s going on and the extent of the irrevocable degradation to the estuary,” he wrote.

A previous article with more detail on this subject is here

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