A digital mockup of American Aquafarms’ proposed salmon processing facility in Gouldsboro. Courtesy of American Aquafarms

Recent pushback surrounding a proposed in-water salmon farm in Frenchman Bay has fueled the efforts of a group advocating for changes to the state’s aquaculture regulations. 

Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage is calling for the Maine Department of Marine Resources to not only reject an as-of-yet unfiled proposal for a roughly 110-acre penned salmon fishery, but also revise the rules governing how such projects get approved. The group argues that without proper regulatory constraints, the state’s fast-growing aquaculture industry could disrupt traditional fishing activity and overtake the coast with large, industrial fish farm operations.

In October, American Aquafarms entered into an agreement to purchase the Maine Fair Trade Lobster facility in Gouldsboro, where it plans to develop its hatchery and processing facilities, officials said in a news release.

Backed by Norwegian investor Mikael Roenes, the American Aquafarms proposal includes 30 150-foot salmon pens that would eventually produce about 30,000 metric tons, or 66 million pounds, of fish, spokesperson Jeremy Payne said. The project will be on two sites, one encompassing 56 acres and the other taking up 60 acres. 

No application has yet been submitted to the Department of Marine Resources, but the company expects to file one soon, following a pre-application meeting that occurred in November. American Aquafarms hopes to have an answer by the summer or fall, Payne said.

Salmon farming is already of interest to Maine’s elected officials. In her 10-year economic development plan, Gov. Janet Mills notes that while the United States imports 95 percent of its salmon, “Maine can grow salmon to solve this need without freezing or airfreight.”

Importing fish from overseas “just doesn’t seem like the right approach as stewards of the environment,” Payne said.

But not everyone is convinced.

A group of Hancock residents issued a news release last week saying they are “prepared to take every measure possible to stop” the project from moving forward.

“Massive sea pen arrays like the ones being proposed by Mr. Roenes have no place in Frenchman’s Bay, no matter how different he says they are,” said Ted O’Meara, a public affairs consultant working with the group. “(Roenes) should be prepared for a long and costly fight if he persists with his plans.”

According to the Friends of Frenchman Bay, there are at least 32 aquaculture leases within the bay’s area, with four more pending. It’s also a popular lobstering site.

Zach Piper has been lobstering in Frenchman Bay for a decade and is concerned for the future of a place he and others rely on to make a living.

“My concern is the amount of ocean that they’re going to take up with this lease,” he said, adding that 100 acres is “a lot to lose right out front.”

Piper and other lobstermen and fishermen in the area attended an October meeting about the proposal, in which they voiced some of their concerns, including the lease size and location. While there were some changes made to the project, it’s not what the group was looking for, he said.

“We asked for them to move both of (the pens) northward a little and off the bottom,” Piper said, but those areas weren’t deep enough for the farm’s needs.

American Aquafarms says it is committed to continuing conversations with area lobstermen to try to assuage some concerns. 

“We want a transparent and open process,” Payne said, adding that he thinks it could be a good economic opportunity for the state and a “significant” opportunity for employment in Gouldsboro. He declined to say exactly how many jobs the company hopes to provide, but said they were “pretty confident it’s going to be hundreds of jobs.” 

It’s not just the potential loss of revenue that has Piper worried.

“The biggest thing about it is it’s an out-of-state interest trying to buy off state of Maine waters,” he said. “The joy of being in Maine is that you can be self-employed and don’t have big companies coming in … we own our own operations. When we start industrializing our fishing, we’re losing a sense of what Maine is about.”

James Paterson, one of the leaders of the coalition in Hancock, agreed. He called the project “totally inappropriate” and likened it to putting a large factory at the foot of Cadillac Mountain.

“This is simply a matter of the wrong place, the wrong technology and the wrong people,” he said, adding that “this project represents the industrialization of a pristine bay in the shadow of Acadia National Park.”

That type of industrialized aquaculture is exactly what Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage is trying to prevent, most recently through draft legislation.

“An Act to Protect Maine’s Waters,” proposed by Rep. Robert Alley, D-Beals, would eliminate the ability to transfer an aquaculture lease without a public hearing and would limit the total size allowed for one application. Currently, a project can grow to 1,000 acres over time through 10 expansions of 100 acres each. Crystal Canney, director of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage, declined to provide specifics on just how limited the project scope would be while the bill is still in draft form.

Aside from legislation, the group also is pushing for a statewide conversation with stakeholders to develop a plan for aquaculture moving forward.

In her 10-year economic development plan, Mills includes the importance of pursuing sustainable fishing opportunities such as aquaculture “to complement traditional fishing and meet the growing demand for a traceable food supply that is changing the way we fish and farm.”

Canney agrees that aquaculture, whether oyster, salmon or otherwise, is important for Maine’s economy, but believes the state needs a more measured approach than it has been taking.

According to Jeff Nichols, spokesperson for the Department of Marine Resources, applications for new aquaculture leases have more than tripled in five years, from 13 in 2015 to 42 in 2020. Active leases take up roughly 1,600 total acres statewide.

Processing that many applications is a challenge, he said, but noted that staff have so far continued annual inspections without delay. Inspections were performed on 94 leases and 400 limited-purpose aquaculture sites in 2020 and through January 2021.

“Something’s got to give because the state can’t keep up,” Canney said. “We need to take a look at all the stakeholders (before we) create situations up and down the coast that are going to be untenable.”

Jon Lewis, the former head of the Department of Marine Resources’ aquaculture division, is equally worried about the increase in the number and frequency of aquaculture lease applications, as well as how many of those applications turn out to be controversial.

“Aquaculture is an appropriate response to some of our resource availability and conditions” as the industry faces a “tremendous cultural and societal shift occurring in how we work our waters,” he said. “Over the last five years or so, there has been a tremendous increase in applications for aquaculture to DMR. They’re flooded right now and have been for some time with the number of lease applications, and commensurate with that has been the large number of conflicts.”

Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage was founded partly in response to such a conflict – a controversial 40-acre oyster farm on Brunswick’s Maquoit Bay in 2018 that spurred hours of public comment over the course of several months. At the time, lobstermen in the area were concerned that the location would infringe upon valuable lobstering grounds, and property owners were concerned about the noise and potential environmental impacts of the project. The department ultimately approved Mere Point Oyster Company’s application.

But while the number of applications and ensuing conflicts have continued to rise, the funding for the small division has not kept pace, Lewis said. He worries that the regulatory body can’t keep up with the rapid growth and demands of the industry.

The division has doubled in size since 2012, bringing staffing levels up to eight employees, Nichols said, and Mills’ 2022-23 biennial budget includes funding for two more – a resource management coordinator and a part-time paralegal.

Lewis still worries it’s not enough. His involvement with Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage is twofold, he said: “To seek additional resources for DMR’s aquaculture program and develop a conversation statewide as to what aquaculture should look like in the state and how we can get away from some of this conflict.”

The department says it is open to discussions.

“DMR is currently participating in statewide discussions around aquaculture growth,” Nichols said. “We are considering additional opportunities for dialogue to occur when public health and safety issues allow in-person meetings to resume. As we’ve done with discussions around proposed federal whale regulations and offshore wind, those discussions will provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to have a voice in the future of Maine aquaculture.”


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