In Maine, residents rise up against industrial-scale aquaculture

A proposal by a Norwegian-owned company to build two massive salmon farms in the middle of a pristine bay next to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, has the community in revolt over fears that they will foul the water and ruin the local fishing and shellfish industries.

American Aquafarms intends to “establish a hatchery, fish farm facilities, and a state-of-the-art processing plant in coastal Maine,” according to its website. If approved by the state, the Bar Harbor farms, which would be 60 acres each and produce 66 million pounds of salmon annually, will be the company’s first farms.

“There are so many things wrong with this project,” said Sarah Redmond, a local oyster farmer. “Nobody around here thinks this is a good idea.”

Frenchman Bay is home to dozens of small and family-owned oyster and mussel farms, kelp farms, lobstermen and fishermen. The fight over the farms is emblematic of the national debate over how to expand aquaculture in the United States.

“I see a storm on the horizon for lobstermen and the future of this industry,” wrote Maine State Rep. Robert Alley in a recent op-ed, citing the growth of aquaculture in the state and the need for better regulation. “It is large, corporate aquaculture if it remains unchecked.”

In June, Frenchman Bay United, a coalition of environmental groups that came together to oppose the aquaculture project, wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland on June 29, urging her to intervene. “We hope that you will help us. We would welcome your opposition to this destructive project,” it says.

Opponents have several objections to the proposal, including the sheer scale of the project. Zach Piper, a lobsterman and business owner, says his main concern is the space it would occupy. “Most everybody fishes in one of those two spots,” he said.

But at the heart of the debate is the potential impact on the bay’s water quality.

American Aquafarms’ selling point is so-called closed pens, or underwater pools in which the salmon would be raised. This is an improvement from more common open-net aquafarms, which use porous nets that allow bacterial and parasitic diseases, such as sea lice, to escape and potentially infect wild species, and that often lead to a buildup of fish waste on the ocean floor.

In American Aquafarms’ system, ocean water would be cycled through the pens, excrement and excess fish food filtered out, and the solid waste used to make biofuel, according to Thomas Brennan, the company’s director of project development.

Opponents say there is still a problem with liquid waste. Fish urine, for example, which is rich in nitrogen, can cause toxic algae blooms that suck oxygen from the water and suffocate wild creatures living there. The risk of algae blooms is exacerbated by rising ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Maine.

However, Randall Brummett, senior fisheries and aquaculture specialist at the World Bank, says if designed right, a closed-pen system “doesn’t necessarily have any negative environmental impact.” Some nutrients will inevitably be released, but if the farms are spaced far enough apart, and the water current and depth are sufficient, “you wouldn’t notice the impact of them.” He added that he is not familiar with the specifics of the Bar Harbor project.

The company stands by its claim that the technology is environmentally friendly. “I believe the technology of the closed-pen system is very protective of the marine environment,” said Brennan, adding that whatever they do will stay well within the limits of Maine’s regulations.

Brennan also touted the potential economic boost to the community. “I don’t know of another $250-million project proposed in Maine or anywhere else in New England,” he said, noting that the farms will create at least 100 high-paying jobs.

Jeff Nichols, the communications director for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, says there still are a number of steps that need to be taken before a final decision can be made on the project. American Aquafarms plans to submit its final application in the coming weeks, according to Brennan.

The debate over large-scale aquaculture reaches beyond the shores of Maine. The U.S. currently imports more than 80 percent of its seafood, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and half of that comes from overseas aquaculture, said Barry Costa-Pierce, a professor of ocean food systems at the University of New England.

Proponents of aquaculture are pushing to expand the industry in the U.S. In 2017, the United States produced $1.5 billion worth of farm-raised seafood, both fish and shellfish, but it remains a small player in the global aquaculture industry. Earlier this year, the Army Corps of Engineers approved a nationwide permit for open-ocean fish farms, over the objection of environmentalists, which could jumpstart the development of aquaculture in federal waters.

Costa-Pierce said aquaculture technology has improved remarkably over the past 30 years, and that what American Aquaculture is proposing “is among the most advanced.” However, he’s not sure that Frenchman Bay is the right place for a project of this size.

Ultimately, aquaculture should promote tourism, it should create jobs people need and want, and it should be supported by the community. “All of those things can happen,” Costa-Pierce said. “They are happening in other places. But the bottom line is that the people are going to make the final determination of whether this is acceptable or not, and I think that’s the way it should be.”

On July 23, the people in the Bar Harbor community had their say. American Aquafarms hosted an online public meeting about the proposed farms. The Q&A session went on for two hours before the company ended it.