Troubled waters: A massive salmon farm off the coast of Maine is stalled
Caitlin Looby, Ph.D.
April 24, 2022
Norwegian-backed American Aquafarms was slated to build the largest salmon farm in North America along the coast of the U.S. state of Maine, using a closed-pen system said to minimize waste.
But opponents say the closed-pen technology is untested at such a large scale, and warn that environmental impacts will devastate the pristine waters.
The proposed salmon farm would have been right at the shorelines of Acadia National Park, threatening the region’s untarnished views and noise pollution.
Currently, the project is indefinitely delayed as state officials terminated the lease application on April 19th. However, with Maine leasing the ocean for only $100 an acre ($250 a hectare) per year, opponents worry that future investors will see the coast as a lucrative target.
The summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in the northeastern U.S. state of Maine offers sweeping, unobstructed views of Frenchman Bay. Surrounded by islands and rocky shorelines, the bay is known throughout Maine for recreation and resources. But new projects may lie over the horizon. American Aquafarms, backed by Norwegian investors, planned to build the largest salmon farm in North America here, just on the edge of Acadia National Park. And lobstermen, like Jerry Potter, say they feared that if the project went through, the pristine waters of Frenchman Bay would never be the same.
“It’s going to ruin the ecosystem of the bay and ruin all the resources … mussels, shrimp, lobsters, crabs, everything,” said Potter, 76, from the nearby town of Gouldsboro.
American Aquafarms first proposed the salmon farm in 2020, in hopes that they would produce 30 million metric tons of salmon each year. The farm would also curb the U.S. reliance on imported seafood, according to Tom Brennan, the director of project management at American Aquafarms. The US currently imports 70-85% of its seafood, about half of which is produced through aquaculture.
But the massive project is now indefinitely delayed. On April 19, 2022, state officials terminated American Aquafarm’s application, citing that American Aquafarms failed to provide documentation that the egg source proposed to stock the pens would meet state requirements. In Maine, genetically modified fish cannot be used to stock salmon pens, however American Aquafarms proposed to work with the company that created the first genetically modified Atlantic salmon.
Brennan is shocked by the decision, stating that the company also included eggs from the USDA as a backup plan in the proposal. That facility was established to provide eggs to salmon growers in Maine, he adds.
Opponents, like Matt Dundas, campaign director for Oceana, a non-profit organization focused on ocean conservation, are pleased with the news.
“The salmon farm proposal was way too big for the area… the consequences hitting the fisherman, lobsterman and everyone else who lives and visits the area,” he says.
“For now, this is a great development for Maine’s coasts.”
Opponents claimed that the project would come at a major cost to the coastal environment and the working waterfront. And some warn that Maine’s low costs and lax regulations might open the door for other industrial-scale projects down the line, even if this one doesn’t go through.
Because American Aquafarms no longer has any permit applications in review, Frenchman Bay United asked in a statement that the “investors end the project completely.” They also stated that the town of Gouldsboro is planning to enact a set of ordinances that would regulate similar operations in local waters.
American Aquafarms can re-apply in the future, but it will likely add two or three years to the permitting process. Although conversations still need to occur with the investors, Brennan hopes to solve the issue.
“This is not the end. We’re not going anywhere,” he says.
‘They’re targeting where they are’
Historically, salmon farms relied on an open-pen design where waste falls to the ocean floor, damaging both the environment and its resources. The American Aquafarms project, however, proposed a closed-pen design that would collect the solid waste and periodically remove it to land, where a bioreactor would turn it into biofuel or compost, Brennan said. The project would have extended over two 60-acre (24-hectare) areas, each housing one pen and mooring lines.
Frenchman Bay once teemed with fish, but “those fisheries are gone,” Brennan said. “What we’re proposing to do is raise fish where they should be.”
The Norwegian-backed investor group chose Frenchman Bay for its clean, cold and deep water, which is needed to keep the salmon free from disease and parasites that thrive in shallower, warmer water.
Crystal Canney, executive director for Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, said they were taking advantage of low costs and poor oversight.
Maine is currently offering up to 20-year leases for $100 an acre, or about $250 a hectare. So the rent for a 120-acre farm only costs the group $12,000 annually.
“Maine’s a cheap date,” Canney said. “We are selling our coasts for next to nothing and it’s one of the greatest assets we have.”
Norway is using the closed-pen design successfully, according to Brennan, albeit many companies opt for a combination of the closed and open designs because of the high cost of the closed-pen design.
However, the closed pens in Norway are much smaller than the one proposed for Frenchman Bay, and an operation the size of the American Aquafarms’ project has never been tested, said Dundas. It’s even several times larger than the maximum sized allowed in Norway, he added.
To put the size of this operation into perspective, Henry Sharpe, a retired engineer and president of Frenchman Bay United, says that if the stalled operation were to produce its proposed 30 million metric tons of salmon each year that would equal about half of all the farm-raised fish grown annually in Eastern Canada.
“They’ve done their homework,” said Potter. “That’s why they’re targeting where they are.”
‘Half-truths,’ footprints and nitrogen
The American Aquafarms project would have posed a threat to water quality and biosecurity, Sharpe said. The two pens alone would have created more than 18 billion liters (4 billion gallons) of wastewater every day, approximately three times the treated wastewater from New York City’s 14 sewage treatment plants.
And this is particularly problematic for Frenchman Bay, because it doesn’t flush water out like bays typically do, Sharpe says. The bay is surrounded by a chain of islands that act as a fence on the sea floor, so any pollutants that are generated there likely won’t leave.
And although American Aquafarms contended that it would collect all the solid waste, Sharpe says this is a “half-truth.” He says that when the solid waste is removed, they use a sludge dewatering press that acts like a cider press, squeezing the liquid out, diluting it with seawater and then releasing it back into the water. That liquid will be chockfull of nitrogen, a major pollutant, Sharpe says.
Nitrogen can create harmful algal blooms that suck the oxygen out of the water, killing marine life and shutting down waters for recreation or work.
The main problem is the nitrogen load, according to Sharpe, not the solid waste.
“They’re not collecting the thing that’s of concern,” he noted.
Sharpe added that he was also concerned about disease, given that large populations of salmon would have been raised in tight quarters. The likelihood of sudden losses is high, he said.
But Brennan said the regulations in place would have prevented the environmental toll that worries opposition groups. There are hundreds of cruise ships that go into Frenchman Bay each summer that will leave a bigger footprint than American Aquafarms will, he said. But many locals remained unconvinced.
“Maine is already a leading fishing industry,” Dundas said. “Why risk something that is working with something that isn’t tested?”
At the doorstep of Acadia National Park
In this part of Maine, the economy isn’t only based on natural resources, like fisheries and aquaculture, but also on water recreation and tourism, says Stephanie Clement, conservation director at Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit and philanthropic partner of Acadia National Park.
Acadia National Park was the first national park established east of the Mississippi River (designated a national monument in 1916 and a national park three years later) and received around 4 million visitors in 2021. The park is known for its granite mountains, rocky coastlines and carriage roads that weave around the mountains and valleys.
“This park is very interconnected with the local communities and the local economy,” Clement says.
If the American Aquaculture’s project had gone ahead, it would have turned “a picturesque oasis into an industrial site,” Dundas said.
One of the proposed pens would have been 600 meters (2,000 feet) from the shoreline of Long Porcupine Island, which is part of the national park, Clement said. The islands in Frenchman Bay are known for their conservation value: dark night skies, scenic beauty, natural soundscapes, and non-polluted waters, she added.
“The American Aquafarms proposal has the chance to really degrade those conservation values,” Clement said, noting that the project would have also caused noise pollution in the park due to running generators and feeding systems.
The working waterfront
Dundas and Sharpe said that the environmental impacts may have also threatened to push out the fishermen, lobstermen and small-scale aquaculture farmers.
“When you have a project of this scale, the characters and complexion of the working waterfront changes from locally owned or operated to foreign-investor based,” Sharpe said. “It has a real impact to the social fabric of the community.”
But Brennan contended that the working waterfront is already disappearing.
Like in many coastal towns, the real-estate market is hot right now. And Maine’s coastal properties often sell sight unseen to people from out of state, Brennan said. As a part of the project, American Aquafarms planned to rebuild the Stinson Sardine Factory that started processing fish during the Civil War and turn it into a salmon-processing plant and hatchery.
Brennan said he believes that if the project doesn’t go through, the factory will be turned into luxury condos. And with much of the coast now taken up by private land, people don’t have access to the coast like they once did, he added.
Brennan said American Aquafarms would be the biggest property taxpayer in the area, bringing in jobs and becoming a big bait supplier, benefiting both fishermen and lobstermen.
‘A situation of winners and losers’
Even with the American Aquafarms project on the ropes, Clement says she’s concerned that other similar proposals will keep coming. That’s why Friends of Acadia is working toward either long-term regulations or new legislation that can stop this from happening again, she says.
And although there’s a lot of local opposition, this really is a statewide issue, Sharpe says. He adds that if this project goes through, investors will be “flocking to Maine” because the opportunity is so financially rewarding.
“I don’t think it’s resonated with the rest of Maine yet,” Sharpe said. “This thing matters to all of Maine, not just the Frenchman Bay area.”
Canney also say the project would have been contrary to the state’s climate change goals, given it would bring more large diesel-powered ships into these waters.
However, Brennan believes the project is in line with the state’s economic goals laid out by the governor.
Dundas still feels “watchful” over the next steps American Aquafarms might take. Had the application been rejected based on pollution, it would have been much harder for them to come back, he says.
“There’s still work to be done to protect Maine’s coasts.”