GOULDSBORO — American Aquafarms’ plan to raise 66 million Atlantic salmon in Frenchman Bay seems to be dead in the water. But the broad citizens’ coalition, which swelled to include all seven Frenchman Bay towns, the Downeast lobster fishery, Acadia National Park, MDI Biological Laboratory and several land trusts, has kept a steady spotlight trained on the issue for a year and is very much alive.
In fact, Frenchman Bay United is prepared to challenge industrial-scale fish farming in Maine coastal waters in light of the departments of Marine Resources and Environmental Protection’s decisions late last week to terminate the Norwegian-backed company’s project that would have involved discharging 4.1 billion gallons of diluted wastewater into the 14-mile bay.
For over a year Frenchman Bay United, a coast-wide coalition of four groups, has led an aggressive public campaign to oppose American Aquafarms’ proposed operation to farm salmon at 15-pen sites off Bald Rock Ledge and Long Porcupine Island. Its members offered scientific data suggesting the farm’s discharged wastewater would largely remain rather than exit Frenchman Bay and potentially harm fragile marine plants, ecosystems and the lobster, shrimp and scallop fisheries. They staged a 125-boat flotilla of lobster-fishing boats, kayakers and sailors last August in Frenchman Bay as a form of protest and other events to draw attention to the controversial project first proposed in mid-fall of 2020.
Frenchman Bay United board president and longtime Sorrento resident Henry Sharpe welcomed the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ April 20 action to “terminate” American Aquafarms’ incomplete DMR lease applications. However, he lamented that the decision was based solely on the company’s failure to provide an approved source of Atlantic salmon eggs or juvenile fish that met state standards in order to complete the application process. Had the regulatory process proceeded, Sharpe says, the company’s contention that its diluted wastewater would gradually flush out of Frenchman Bay would have been challenged by contradictory findings of University of Rhode Island oceanographer and currents modeler Chris Kincaid. In his modeling of American Aquafarms’ proposed wastewater discharge plan, Kincaid concluded that the company’s release of nitrogen-rich effluent would far exceed state standards and threaten marine life in the waterbody, where water quality would greatly deteriorate over time.
“It’s important to note that this project has been met with overwhelming opposition from across the state. Frenchman Bay United and dozens of our partners have consistently made the case against this project on many substantive grounds: the adverse impact to the environment, the threat to our working waterfronts, the threat to the tourism industry, the insult to the foundational ideas of Acadia National Park and the litany of unmentioned rests that could go enormously wrong. Mainers agree. This project is a bad deal for Maine,” Sharpe said at an April 21 press conference. “We’ve consistently heard from lobstermen and women, small-scale aquaculturists, business owners, conservation organizations, recreation users, property owners that this project is not welcome in our waters. These stakeholders have demonstrated that the proposed lease would unreasonably interfere with navigation, with fishing, with recreation and other uses of the area.”
In an April 20 public notice, the DMR stated it had “terminated” American Aquafarms’ two incomplete lease applications after the company failed to secure a qualified source or hatchery for Atlantic salmon eggs and juvenile fish as defined under state law. Furthermore, the state agency also cited the applicant’s inability to furnish documentation that its proposed supplier of salmon eggs or smolt, AquaBounty of Newfoundland, could comply with genetic requirements as specified under state law. Last September, DMR’s Aquaculture Division Director Marcy Nelson informed American Aquafarms that her agency had “never reviewed or provided an import permit for Atlantic salmon originating from AquaBounty.”
Responding to the DMR’s action, American Aquafarms’ Project Manager Tom Brennan late last week said it was his understanding American Aquafarms had resubmitted documentation qualifying AquaBounty as a source. He added that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Cold Water Marine Aquaculture Center in Franklin had been cited as an alternative source. The federal facility, however, is not in the business of supplying private companies. The facility does have research agreements with companies such as Cooke Aquaculture, which holds leases to farm salmon at 24 ocean sites in coastal waters.
“We thought we were on track to satisfy the goal,” Brennan said April 22. “Evidently, neither worked.”
DEP Commissioner Melanie Loyzim also responded to DMR’s permanent halt of American Aquafarms’ two lease applications. In an April 21 letter to the company’s contracted consultant, Ransom Consulting, Loyzim said the DMR’s termination of the lease applications had rendered null and void the company’s DEP wastewater discharge license applications. Quoting state statutes, Loyzim said, “If the project requires a submerged lands lease from the state, evidence must be supplied that the lease has been issued, or that an application is pending.” In other words, the DMR applications are no longer pending.
In response to the DEP decision on the wastewater discharge license applications, Brennan said American Aquafarms stands by its Portland-based environmental consultant and scientist Elizabeth Ransom and civil engineer and computer modeler Nathan Dill’s 2020 study and analysis. Their contention was that the effluent would dilute, disperse and drift over time in and out of Frenchman Bay. Brennan said American Aquafarms has sought, but still doesn’t know, the underlying scientific premise and assumptions forming the basis for the high-res computer modeling conducted by Kinkaid of Frenchman Bay.
Despite its Frenchman Bay project having hit a brick wall, American Aquafarms appears determined to farm salmon in Maine. Company Vice President Eirik Jors said no decision has been made yet whether to take legal action and how best to move forward. “We remain committed to the process and to further the development of sustainable and environmentally friendly aquaculture in Maine.”
With American Aquafarms’ applications no longer pending, Gouldsboro Planning Board Chair Ray Jones says he expects members to consider various options resulting from the related DEP and DMR decisions and DMR Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson’s April 21 registering opposition to the board’s draft aquaculture licensing ordinance (Related story, Section II, Page 4) at the board’s next regular meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 2, at the Gouldsboro town office.
In addition, Jones anticipates the Gouldsboro Select Board will exercise its authority and extend the town’s current moratorium on finfish aquaculture development for another six months at a special town meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 28, in the Prospect Harbor Women’s Club. He said extension will give the board time to finetune its draft aquaculture licensing ordinance or incorporate some elements into its existing site plan and land use ordinances and seek public input before possibly putting a new ordinance or amendments to voters at a special town meeting before year’s end.