Maine is facing an urgent question. Industrial fish farming proposals, in which finned fish, like salmon or yellowtail tuna, are raised for human consumption, place Maine at a crucial crossroads. Do Mainers wish to industrialize our coastal communities and waters? Are there other visions that will sustain and strengthen our iconic local fishing economies, cultures and marine ecosystems?

A fish breaks the surface of the water in one of Cooke Aquaculture’s farming pens at Cobscook Bay’s Broad Cove in Eastport in 2021. “In ocean-based (aquaculture) systems, chemicals flow freely into the water, and diseases that could devastate wild fish, especially endangered Atlantic salmon, can be spread from captive populations to wild populations,” Susie O’Keeffe and Erin Bachmeier write. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, File

The primary public relations message behind large-scale aquaculture is that we cannot stop marine ecosystem decline, and factory fish farming is our only choice. However, science and restoration tell a different, and a far more hopeful, story. Not only do fish populations rebound significantly, but carbon sequestration increases when marine and freshwater ecosystems are restored.

The same cannot be said for industrial-scale aquaculture, where large factories are built either on land with partially recirculating systems, or in the ocean as open net pens. These facilities, the equivalent of factory farms for fish, are known to accelerate ecosystem decline as they generate harmful pollutants, including pesticides, toxic chemicals and antibiotics. For example, as reported by the Times Colonist in Victoria, British Columbia, “Canthaxanthin, a suspected carcinogen, is added to fish pellets to change farmed Atlantics’ gray flesh into the orange hue of Pacific sockeye to make them more appetizing for the marketplace.” Land-based filtration systems cannot eliminate many of these toxins or diseases, and they require enormous amounts of energy and freshwater. In ocean-based systems, chemicals flow freely into the water, and diseases that could devastate wild fish, especially endangered Atlantic salmon, can be spread from captive populations to wild populations.

These threats are not imagined. They’re not theoretical. We’ve seen them realized across the globe. The multibillion-dollar fish feed industry is devastating local food economies in India and Latin America while destroying forage fish populations. Farmed fish suffer from overstocking, injury, disease and maltreatment, while the companies spearheading these efforts are privatizing and polluting a shared resource that local fishers and communities depend on. Other countries that have industrial-scale finfish operations are realizing the danger of these facilities. Norway has placed a six-month moratorium on fish farms, while Denmark has banned new open net pens completely.

Does Maine have the right regulations in place, and do we have agencies with the needed staff, expertise and power to actually enforce regulations? Shouldn’t our officials, at the very least, heed the research and demands of organizations like Upstream Watch, Frenchman Bay United and Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage? Is Maine prepared to handle the harm these factories could cause?

Maine has already fielded proposals for both land-based and in-shore ocean facilities across the state. Because of a 2020 presidential executive order (executive order 13921), our offshore waters could be next. The executive order designates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the lead agency for aquaculture permitting and directs NOAA to establish aquaculture opportunity areas, or areas deemed ideal for large aquaculture projects like finfish farms. Although these aquaculture opportunity areas have been limited to California and the Gulf of Mexico so far, the executive order advises that new ones are identified every four years.

As a state with waters suitable for factory farming fish and with $2.4 billion of our GDP coming from fisheries, Maine needs to hit the stop button on the factory farming of fish; the harm to our coastal ecosystems and economies is simply too high a risk to take.

The restoration and protection of Maine’s marine and freshwater ecosystems might not benefit the various corporations that have set their sights on Maine’s cool waters, but they will benefit our local fishing, lobstering, small-scale aquaculture and coastal communities. Most importantly, they will offer our young people the skills, hope and healing they need to tackle the climate and extinction crises while they learn to work with Maine’s natural wonders to create a vibrant, beautiful and resilient future.

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