SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Cooke Aquaculture’s request to continue operating two salmon farms off Black Island was met with resistance from regional fishermen and activists last week.
The company sought to renew the leases for two net pen sites in the town of Frenchboro and had a hearing with the state Department of Marine Resources at the Southwest Harbor fire house on Nov. 8.
Before the hearing, people gathered outside to protest the farm, which recently had more than 115,000 fish die in a mass mortality event that was chalked up to low oxygen levels in the pens.
“Stop the fish farm,” protestors chanted while holding signs.
The two sites have 36 pens spread across 53.5 acres. They are part of a three-bay farming management system that Cooke uses to grow its salmon, said Jennifer Robinson, a company compliance officer.
The Black Island sites are essential to the company so it can rotate its finfish between the three sites, she said.
A lease renewal application is decided upon based on a narrow set of parameters. The lease must be in the best interest of the state, must not push the lease holder to have more than 1,000 acres in total leases, and may not be held for speculative purposes. Cooke would also have to have complied with the past lease.
Opponents argued that with the fish die off in August, the renewal clearly wasn’t in the best interest of the state of Maine.
Crystal Canney, the executive director of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, a group that has been leading the charge in opposition to the proposed American Aquafarms salmon farm for Frenchman Bay, said that, despite no requirement to notify the DMR of the fish die off, the company should have done it, and done it much sooner.
She wondered how long the pens at the site had gone unwashed and who would have wanted to eat those fish if they had not died.
“I can’t say this strongly enough, if this lease is renewed, it will not be in the best interest of the state,” Canney said.
Jimmy Hanscom, a Bar Harbor lobsterman and scalloper, understood that some fish will inevitably die in the process of fish farming, but more than 100,000 dying sounded like a lot to him.
“As a lifelong commercial fisherman, we worry about our waters, we worry about our environment, we worry about our ecosystems,” he said.
The area around the pens used to be home to other wildlife such as scallops and lobsters, but now there’s little to be found on the bottom, the lobsterman told the DMR.
“I think it’s very unhealthy,” Hanscom said. “We all know it.”
DMR and opponents peppered Cooke with questions related to the die off and the two weeks between when it happened and when it was relayed to the state.
“To my knowledge, there are no requirements to report a mortality event,” said Robinson. “I chose to report it to the Department of Marine Resources because, to me, an oxygen issue was a fish health issue.”
The state Department of Environmental Protection did go out to the site after the die off was cleaned up and found no violations. The company said it was looking at possible aeration or supplemental oxygen to prevent future fish kills.
Cooke and similar operations do have to report diseased and escaped fish, but die offs that are attributed to environmental factors fall through the cracks. Marcy Nelson, the aquaculture program director at DMR, said the agency was having internal discussions about these types of incidents.
No members of the public spoke up in favor of renewing the lease, though Tom Gott said that a photo of dead fish that was purported to be dropped off at his compost site and entered as evidence for the hearing was not from the August die off.
Gott told the Islander that the photo seemed to be old and possibly from a past die off. Unlike the fish in the photo, the salmon from this incident were very much intact and looked fresh, he said.
In all, the hearing was about two and a half hours of testimony. There were more than a dozen people in the audience and many more who participated remotely – an option that was made available, according to DMR officials, because of the difficulty in getting between Frenchboro and the mainland.
With testimony gathered, the DMR will consider the evidence and decide on the lease. There is no timeline for decisions, Nelson said.