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American Aquafarms’ controversial salmon farm permit is killed

By: Ethan Genter

April 20, 2022

Bangor Daily News

Original article State officials have terminated American Aquafarms’ application for a massive fish farm in Frenchman Bay, dealing a major setback to the Norwegian-backed company that hoped to grow millions of pounds of Atlantic salmon in net pens.

On Tuesday, the Maine Department of Marine Resources told American Aquafarms that it would no longer be processing the company’s lease applications for two 60-acre pen sites off Gouldsboro because the company failed to select a proper source for its fish eggs.

The company can still submit an entirely new application, but a restart would likely tack on several years to the permitting process.

“This will put them two to three years if they want to start over again,” said Patrick Keliher, the department commissioner.

A company official did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday and the department said it has not heard back from American Aquafarms on its intentions.

The company planned to place 30 floating pens, each 150-foot wide, for growing salmon in a 120-acre area in Frenchman Bay. The firm also planned to use the old Maine Fair Trade Lobster plant in Gouldsboro for a salmon hatchery and processing plant.

When the project was first proposed in 2020, American Aquafarms envisioned growing about 66 million pounds of salmon per year.

The department flagged the egg-sourcing issue in September. At the time, it told American Aquafarms that the company’s plan to get salmon eggs from the Newfoundland, Canada-based AquaBounty wouldn’t be approved, because AquaBounty is not on its list of qualified sources or hatcheries.

American Aquafarms tried to provide documentation that AquaBounty could meet the state’s sourcing criteria and other requirements, but proved unsuccessful.

“We had to ask them several times to supply the information that was needed,” Keliher said. “They weren’t able to do it.”

The department’s termination of the lease was not an outright rejection, the commissioner noted. The application had not yet made it to the approval phase of the permitting process and was discontinued because of the lack of information on the egg sourcing.

Ensuring the right kind of fish is used for this type of sea-based farm is crucial in case some escape and start to mix with other types of salmon.

Keliher said American Aquafarms’ application had drawn more interest than any other in the state’s history. After it was proposed, the project quickly drew criticism from fishermen, activists and lawmakers in Hancock County and beyond.

Many fear it would hurt the bay and the people who make their livelihoods on it.

“[DMR] should have thrown it out a long time ago,” James West, a scallop fisherman from Sorrento, said. “They could devastate the ecosystem in Frenchman Bay.”

Wednesday evening, fishermen, town officials and nonprofit leaders applauded the department’s decision. They expressed hope that American Aquafarms wouldn’t submit another application.

“This is a blow to industrial scale aquaculture in the water and it will result in protecting Maine’s future,” said Crystal Canney, the executive director of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation. “There is a lot more work to be done so this doesn’t happen anywhere along the Maine coast.”

Even though the application was terminated, surrounding towns still should consider creating more protections for themselves, said Lamoine Select Board member Kathleen Rybarz. American Aquafarms could continue with the idea and other large-scale projects could eye Maine’s waters.

“I think that in the long run, it has made us open our eyes and be ready for the future,” Rybarz said.

In the fall, Gouldsboro enacted a moratorium on local approvals and permits for large scale aquaculture and the town plans to consider reupping that for another six months later in April.

American Aquafarms’ proposal has helped spur a push against so-called “industrialized aquaculture” throughout the state. Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, has been traveling up and down the coast asking other communities to consider moratoriums on large-scale aquaculture projects so municipalities can work on enacting stricter local rules.

On Tuesday, the town’s planning board held a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to create a local aquaculture licensing program, in addition to the state, which currently processes all aquaculture projects along the coast.

Projects like American Aquafarms have made the department rethink its processes. In February, the department asked the state legislature to allow it to charge up to $250,000 in special fees to handle these increasingly complicated applications. The request, which was later rejected, was made to prevent those big projects from monopolizing the department’s time to the detriment of other applicants waiting for approvals.

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