When Bar Harbor gets a hard rain, the runoff flushes sewage into Frenchman Bay. First cited for this problem over four years ago, the town has been negotiating with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection off and on ever since. Town voters just approved $35.5 million for upgrades, but the new plant will take time to design and build. Years will pass before the pollution stops.

The Save the Bay flotilla in protest of two 60-acre fish farms passes the Bar Harbor town pier, where people holding signs against the proposed fish farm were gathered in August 2021.Ted O’Meara photo

A Norwegian investment group has indicated in newspapers and trade magazines it still intends to anchor two 60-acre fish farms just offshore from Bar Harbor and raise 66 million pounds of salmon there each year. While the American Aquafarms application was terminated earlier this year, the state left open the door for its return – and it appears the company is looking to walk through that door. If that happens, it would be the largest such installation in the world, and it would be a far greater threat to water quality in the bay than the town will ever be. The Bar Harbor story illustrates Maine’s inability to manage the risks involved.

American Aquafarms would circulate about 4 billion gallons of seawater per day through their fish pens. That’s 2,000 times the volume of effluent Bar Harbor can legally discharge, and it’s triple the combined output of New York City’s 14 sewage plants. It has been estimated that in just a few years, an industrial-scale fish factory would cycle through as much water as is contained in all of Frenchman Bay.

The discharged water will be loaded with dissolved fish poop, prophylactic drugs and the nitrogen compounds on which algae feed. This “nitrogen loading” drives algal blooms, which choke out most other plants and animals. Salmon farm pollution has devastated water quality and destroyed sea life around the world. It’s so bad in Norway that industrial-scale fish factories like the one proposed for Frenchman Bay have been outlawed. Now, thanks to Maine’s lax regulations, absurdly low permitting fees and weak enforcement, the salmon industry is moving into our waters.

Water quality at American Aquafarms’ gigantic operation would be overseen by the undermanned and underfunded Maine Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Marine Resources.  These agencies can’t afford regular on-site inspections of aquaculture installations anymore, so they depend on voluntary reports from operators to identify problems. When our bay is choked with algal slime, will Aquafarms’ army of lawyers accept responsibility? If they do, how long might the DEP take to negotiate a cleanup plan? Will the Norwegians move faster than Bar Harbor?

Water quality is declining all along the Maine coast.  Nitrogen loading is choking Portland’s Casco Bay with algae this summer, and the DEP is monitoring five of the worst algal blooms. In public statements the department minimizes these problems and wrings its hands. They say that even though algae kills most sea life, these infestations aren’t usually poisonous to humans. And anyway, it’s hard to prove exactly what causes these outbreaks, so how could they hold anyone accountable?

We have algal blooms in Frenchman Bay this summer, too. Miles of polluted shoreline are closed to fishing and harvesting. The nitrogen load is rising and Indicator species are declining. Adding tons of pollutants from a giant salmon factory will further degrade the bay and speed the destruction of the fishing and tourist industries that drive the economy of Down East Maine.

American Aquafarms’ initial application was rejected, but they say they’ll be back. Maine must take three steps to save Frenchman Bay and preserve the quality of all our coastal waters. First, we must pause new fish factory licenses – and with both gubernatorial candidates on record against this project, that’s doable. Second, we must revamp Maine’s aquaculture policies to balance growth and conservation. And third, we must ensure that regulators have both the will and the resources needed to enforce tougher controls.

Often we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Let’s act now.

Comments are no longer available on this story