Ninety people gathered at the Hutchinson Center Friday, Oct. 25, for the 10th annual Estia conference, "Reclaiming the Water Commons: Water Ethics and Nature Rights in Maine." Organizer Hugh Curran's goal for the conference was to deal with the moral, ethical and aesthetic aspects of water.

Curran, a lecturer at University of Maine and member of Estia, which stands for Ecopeace Sustainability Training and International Affairs, chose this year’s topic because of the advance of aquaculture, which he sees as commercialization of the water commons.

Barbara Arter, an environmental consultant who has worked for 30 years helping groups tackle conservation issues around inshore fisheries, diadromous fish runs, seabirds, land trusts and water quality led the roundtable discussion on aquaculture.

There are two types of aquaculture being conducted in Maine, Arter explained. All the finfish aquaculture in the state is salmon farming, and the value of its landings is second only to lobster. These operations are mostly offshore and Down East, with many lease sites in Cobscook Bay and some around Swan’s Island. There are none in Penobscot Bay. All finfish operations in Maine are owned by Cooke Aquaculture of New Brunswick, Canada. The other type, shellfish aquaculture, growing clams, oysters or mussels, requires much smaller leases and is done primarily inshore by local entrepreneurs.

“There is nothing sustainable or organic about farm-raised salmon,” Arter said. “The product is manipulated; the fish are fed antibiotics, dyes and other chemicals.” Another participant raised the point that it is also wasteful — it takes 3 pounds of mackerel or other bait fish to produce 1 pound of salmon. Arter said that shellfish aquaculture is a little more consumer friendly in that the product is not manipulated, but there is an environmental concern. The primary argument Arter hears against shellfish aquaculture is it transforms a pristine, natural and functioning ecosystem into an altered, unnatural and unbalanced system.

“It is a transformation from natural to industrial,” Arter said. But she clarified that it is not an issue of privatization, because the inshore water is still owned by all Maine citizens, from whom the aquaculture operators lease the site.

Arter passed around a map showing all the finfish and shellfish aquaculture lease sites in Maine, which can be downloaded from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) website, along with a handbook of how the process of leasing works and how you can participate. Public input is accepted at hearings when leases are proposed. However, Arter explained that no public input at these hearings has ever stopped an aquaculture lease from being granted, because none has successfully proven that any of the five criteria for granting the lease are not being met. The only time that there was success was when there was so much public resistance to a lease site off of Deer Isle that the company made the decision on its own not to use the site. The DMR encourages the leasing of aquaculture sites, Arter said.

Another issue that was brought up by the group was the class struggle that often underlies the conflict: local fishermen trying to make a living are pit against wealthy land owners who do not want any enterprise occurring in the vicinity of their homes. One participant said that the issue has split his neighborhood.

"Some say that the entrepreneur who is already operating [there] is a nice guy; that he's is only one person doing this and they’ll deal with more when that comes up," he said. "But that one site has expanded and there are already 10 more applicants."

Later in the panel discussion, Arter described this conflict as "a conundrum" because ecological concerns get lost in the DMR's promotion of aquaculture.

At the roundtable discussion, Susan Curran of Friends of Morgan Bay said she had asked the DMR how aquaculture affects the whole ecosystem of the bay, but they do not know because they do not have the funding needed to do the research. Arter noted that it would be the Department of Environmental Protection’s role to determine those effects.

Options discussed that could give concerned citizens more of a role in determining how the water commons are used included boycotting aquaculture products, changing the legislation around leasing sites and developing a better planning process, which would involve strengthening the state planning office to do better marine spatial planning and bay management.

Another promising idea that was brought up was to promote onshore cultivation as an alternative to inshore aquaculture. A benefit about this is that any land-based aquaculture operation is required to clean all water before it is discharged from the system. There is an onshore shellfish farm in Canada called Island Sea Farms, Inc., which has developed a way to grow mussels from larvae in large tanks.

Hugh Curran talked to me after the conference. “Beyond [the aquaculture] discussion," he said. "I wanted to get to the roots of the issues, so I wanted this to be a philosophical and ethical conference too. Ethics looks at long term consequences; the commercial viewpoint looks at the short-term. Right now we’re living in a world that doesn’t want to look far ahead — not even the EPA and DMR want to. They see their role as enabling industry, not looking at the long-term consequences."

John Bear Mitchell, lecturer at the Wabanaki Institute, told participants during the morning panel discussion that every one of them has incredible stories, and incredible lives they have lived and will live. “We need to be excited about these stories,” he said. “We all have a story and those stories tell something that is true, relevant and important. It reveals who you are and gives a cultural snapshot.”

Susan O’Keeffe, lecturer at College of the Atlantic, led a roundtable discussion about how art influences environmental ethics. “Art,” she said, “can have the power to bring us into a sense of wonder and mystery. The awareness present in art is important; creative energy is our connection to a larger consciousness without dualism. This creative energy allows one to stand in the middle of a stream and sense how we and the stream are one being. This is a form of knowledge and intelligence that we rarely include in our assessments of intelligence.”

Kyriacos Markides, a sociology professor at the University of Maine who studies the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, spoke about how our world view needs retooling or redefinition. He explained that tribal people saw nature as a living, spiritual being. Early scientists thought God created the universe but left it to run on its own. This view, he said, takes the human subject as deterministic, where everything is determined by physical laws. Markides introduced another ancient view, "panentheism," whereby God is understood as outside and beyond the world, but also embedded in every particle. He clarified that this is not to be confused with pantheism, which considers all things in the wold as divine. “If our species is to survive in the long run, it needs to develop a sacred attitude vis-à-vis the way we relate to the natural world,” he said.

To help bring conference attendees into an artistic, sacred attitude, water-themed artwork was displayed on the walls and music was performed by Mosonobu Ikemiya, Inanna Sisters in Rhythm and Hawk Henries.