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What Happens in Frenchman's Bay can come to Penobscot next

More than 120 boats ranging from skiffs to lobster boats to expensive pleasure craft and everything in between gathered in Frenchman’s Bay last weekend to demonstrate what the footprint of a planned aquaculture development there would be, if approved. The demonstrators in this flotilla showed how diverse is the opposition to the project, a small-scale aqua-farmer told me.

Imagine standing on top of Cadillac Mountain and looking down at the bay to see two 60-acre fish farms there — equivalent to roughly 16 football fields. If the so-called American Aquafarms is able to pull this off in Frenchman’s, there is no reason to believe Penobscot Bay won’t be next.

Aquaculture as a concept is a good thing, many fish-eaters agree. Given that one of Maine’s greatest resources is our coastline, maximizing its value makes sense. But the firm seeking to put a large-scale salmon farm in the middle of the bay named for Samuel de Champlain, when he discovered Mount Desert Island for the Europeans in the early 17th century, is not American, suggesting a little bait and switch from the very outset.

It’s Norwegian.

That’s not to knock Norway. The mildly controversial Nordic Aquafarms project in Waldo County earned positive environmental reviews. Unlike their compatriots Downeast, they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. Nor do they plan their fish farm in the middle of Belfast Bay, but rather onshore. By contrast, “American” Aquafarms is trying to do in Hancock County something Norwegian environmental regulations prohibit them from doing at home.

“If someone’s going to be profiting from our seas, it should be a Mainer,” oyster farmer Graham Platner, who works on the bay, suggested, adding “they may have plenty of safeguards in place for their wastewater, but if anything goes wrong it’s going to hurt all of us.”

Platner is not alone in his concern. More than 25 local lobstermen signed a letter to authorities objecting to the massive salmon operation. Kevin Schneider, the superintendent of Acadia National Park, also raised questions with the project whose activities, he wrote, “may potentially impact park resources and values.”

Given that Acadia is one of the jewels in the crown of Maine’s $6.5 billion tourist industry, Schneider’s concerns carry economic weight.

If approved, the Norwegian project could create about 100 jobs, the company behind it says. Economic development is always an attention-grabber in our state for good reason. But how many of those jobs would be filled by people from away? The Gouldsboro cannery, which American Aquafarms would utilize, imported workers from other states and abroad prior to shutting down.

An oyster farm on the bay couldn’t fill two positions this summer, Platner told me, and given this wondered where the Norwegians expected to find 100 workers.

To boot, a significant part of the financing behind this mega salmon farm projects would come from Maine state tax incentives. Pause for a moment to consider the irony of a foreign company profiting not only from our coastline, but also from our tax dollars. When you do, the shine fades quickly from this Norwegian scheme.

“As I’ve said from the beginning, if this can happen in the waters off Acadia National Park, it can happen anywhere in Maine,” Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for Frenchman Bay United, an umbrella group of project opponents, said.

Fishermen in Maine are facing more and more obstacles in recent days. This past week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration floated new restrictions on lobster fishing in what they claim is an effort to protect right whales.

Naturally, Maine’s congressional delegation and governor oppose these, and we’ll soon see how much power they can jointly muster against such ill-conceived diktats from Washington. Given such existential threats to a fundamental Maine industry, the last thing we should have to worry about is a foreign plot to turn Frenchman’s Bay into a salmon hatchery.

But these are strange days in which we live. Our last line of defense may be the state’s Department of Marine Resources, which would have to grant licenses for the Norwegians to move forward. So far, “American” Aquafarms’ application is “not complete.”

Should it eventually pass muster, Penobscot Bay could be next.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.

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