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Fish Farm Opponents Hail Washington State Ban On Net-Pen Salmon Farming

But Fear It Will Increase Development Pressure on Maine's Coastal Waters

GOULDSBORO, Maine – The group that has led the fight against the rejected American Aquafarms’ proposal to place a massive floating fish factory in Frenchman Bay next to Acadia National Park supports Washington state’s recently-announced ban on net-pen finfish farming but fears that it could increase pressure for more large-scale fish farms in Maine waters.

“While we are pleased to see Washington take this important step and join Alaska, California and Oregon in banning net-pen fish farming, we are deeply concerned that not only will American Aquafarms return with a new proposal, as they have promised, but others will now see Maine as an even more inviting place to build large ocean-based fish farms,” said Henry Sharpe, president of Frenchman Bay United (FBU).

On November 18, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz announced an executive order that ends commercial net-pen farming of fin fish in state waters. The order followed her termination of Cooke Aquaculture’s remaining fish farming leases in Puget Sound. According to The Seattle Times, Cooke Aquaculture purchased all of Washington’s net-pen facilities in 2016. The executive order cites an interagency document, with input from Tribal and university experts, that “identified risks to the natural environment from commercial finfish net pen aquaculture, including degradation of the benthic environment, biofouling, and ecological impacts to the broader habitat.” The report also noted that “not all risk can be eliminated, even if very best followed.

The risks include adverse impacts on wild salmon populations due to large viral plumes emitted by the net-pens, a reduction in the fitness of wild salmon following net-pen escapes, and habitat loss for other species associated with high nutrient loads.

Pressure has been building for a net-pen ban in Washington since a Cooke pen broke apart in 2016 at a fish farm near Cypress Island, resulting in the release of hundreds of thousands of non-native Atlantic salmon into local waters. The Washington Department of Natural Resources found that drag caused by inadequate maintenance and cleaning of the pens containing the farmed salmon was likely the primary cause for the break.

Here in Maine, Cooke, a global aquaculture and seafood business based in New Brunswick, Canada, is currently the only company raising salmon with open net-pens in locations from Eastport to Black Island near Mount Desert Island. In August of 2021, there was massive of die- off of nearly 116,000 salmon at Cooke’s Black Island site. The die-off wasn’t reported to state regulators for almost two weeks, and by the time officials visited the site the Cooke had removed the dead fish and cleaned the pens.

Cooke blamed the die-off on a lack of dissolved oxygen, but no official determination was made, and no action was taken against Cooke. Less than a year later, the Maine Department of Marine Resources easily renewed the Black Island lease for another 20 years. FBU’s Sharpe noted that in addition to Washington and the other West Coast states, Argentina banned salmon farming in 2021, Canada has been looking at phasing out open net-pen farming in British Columbia, and Norway, which has been farming salmon for many years, has strict regulations on the size of farms and their environmental impact.

“We need to learn from the experiences of other states and countries and make sure Maine is doing everything it can to protect its coastal waters and communities,” Sharpe said. “Many places around the world that have seen large investments in ocean net-pens over the last 30- plus years have now come to realize that the costs and risks far outweigh the benefits.”

Sharpe said that in many areas, intensive fish farming has caused wild stocks to plummet due to escapes and viruses and whole habitats and ecosystems that support other fisheries, recreation and tourism have collapsed due to nutrient loading. Short-term benefits to a few didn’t begin to account for the losses of once-abundant species, healthy ecosystems, and local jobs, he noted.

“We hope Maine officials are paying close attention to what is happening in these places that went big for ocean-based salmon farming only to now ban it,” said Sharpe. “As the door is closed on net-pen salmon farming elsewhere, it would be a tragedy if American Aquafarms returns and other environmentally destructive, commercial-scale fish farms try to come to Maine because we are seen as a place with lax regulations and oversight and low-cost permits. Let’s learn from the experience of others and make sure we are doing everything we can to protect one of Maine’s most extraordinary assets – our coastal waters.” Media contacts Ted O’Meara Frenchman Bay United 207-653-2392 Crystal Canney Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation


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