GOULDSBORO — Opposition is mounting to a large-scale salmon farm in Frenchman Bay before the project’s backers have formally submitted an application to locate roughly 30 net-pens at two sites north of Bald Rock and The Hop islands. In a related move, a citizen’s group is calling for the Maine Department of Marine Resources to toughen its rules regarding aquaculture leases that range widely from mussel to oyster cultivation in coastal Maine. Applications for these enterprises have jumped threefold in just five years.
Early this week, American Aquafarms’ President and CEO Mikael Roenes still had not filed a DMR application for his company’s proposed ocean farm to raise Atlantic salmon and possibly cod in the northern-northwestern section of Frenchman Bay. From Norway’s southern coastal town of Grimstad, Roenes early last fall outlined his plan to raise the fish in floating net pens, fitted with polymer-membrane cloth sacks in which fish waste (faeces and feed) collects at the bottom. The waste is pumped to and passes through an attached filtration unit before being discharged at sufficient depth into the sea.
As part of its plan, American Aquafarms signed a purchase agreement with New Bedford, Mass.-based East Coast Seafood Group to acquire its seafood-processing plant in Gouldsboro’s Prospect Harbor village. The 100,000-square-foot Maine Fair Trade facility and its wharf would become the base from which the fish farm’s barges and other craft would embark from to tend the Frenchman Bay ocean pens. The harvested fish would be processed on site. The existing warehouse would be converted into a hatchery for producing juvenile salmon and cod to replenish harvested fish.
For over a century, the Prospect Harbor plant has continuously processed seafood — whether sardines, lobster or scallops — and has been a major source of year-round jobs for eastern Hancock and western Washington County residents. In 2020, Maine Fair Trade was Hancock County’s 25th largest employer with a workforce in the 1-500 range, according to Maine Department of Labor statistics.
Earlier this week, East Coast Seafood Group declined to say whether the Maine Fair Trade property had been sold or when the sale might occur. Nor would company officials say why it no longer wants to process lobster and produce value-added products in Maine’s Downeast region. In an unsigned statement released Monday, the company said it had made additional investments last year at its state-of-the-art processing facility in New Bedford, Mass. In 2021, the company aims to sell more than 40 million pounds of seafood products worldwide.
As one of the world’s top live-lobster buyers, East Coast Seafood Group plans to remain a major player in the Maine lobster market, noting its $40 million investment to date in the industry. They call lobster fishing critical to the Maine economy, but touted aquaculture as a potentially stable, sustainable industry for Maine fishing communities like Gouldsboro. They say American Aquafarms “would provide significant employment opportunities over the long term, ultimately creating increased job figures for Gouldsboro and the surrounding area. Aquaculture jobs often provide technically advanced operations, requiring enhanced labor training and improved skill sets, expanded wage rates and notably year-round employment where seasonality is the norm.”
Since March of 2020, American Aquafarms has worked with Maine & Company President and CEO Peter DelGreco to forge contacts in Maine and scope out potential sites for its aquaculture venture. Last spring, Roenes contacted Maine Department of Economic and Community Development Director Andrea Smith about qualifying for income tax credits and sales tax exemptions granted to businesses in certain industries under Maine’s Pine Tree Development Zone (PTZD). Roenes In an April 6, 2020, letter to Smith, Roenes estimated 60 full-time salaried jobs would be created. “Please be assured that our economic development plan would not occur within the state of Maine but for the availability of PTZD benefits.”
In Maine at present, Canada’s Cooke Aquaculture runs the state’s sole sea-based salmon farm. Its two dozen ocean-pen sites are located in Cobscook and Machias bays and other protected inlets in Washington County.
After unveiling its plan publicly in Gouldsboro Oct. 16, 2020, American Aquafarms’ proposed Frenchman Bay operation sparked immediate alarm and staunch opposition from Hancock residents who objected to the proposed operation’s scale in a waterbody where half a dozen towns’ lobster fishermen compete for prime sea floor to lay their traps. The opponents pointed out several dozen small-scale farms cultivate mussels, oysters and seaweed there too. Come summer, all size and form of recreational craft use the bay from sailboats and kayakers to outboard boats and sightseeing vessels. A ferry also provides seasonal passenger service between Winter Harbor and Bar Harbor.
“This is simply a matter of the wrong place, the wrong technology and the wrong people,” Hancock resident James Paterson said in a Jan. 18 press release. He also noted American Aquafarms’ proximity to Acadia National Park. “This project represents the industrialization of a pristine bay in the shadow of Acadia National Park. It is a totally inappropriate place for this kind of development — it’s like putting a large factory at the foot of Cadillac Mountain.”
Hancock resident Ted O’Meara, a public affairs consultant working with the Frenchman Bay group, questioned Roenes’ credibility, referring to 2008 stories in the Norwegian business journal, Financsavisen, detailing the Grimstad businessman’s four-year prison sentence on fraud-related charges. In the decade since serving 2.5 years in prison, Roenes founded an investment company, Global AS, and was involved in the 2019 start-up of Norcod, a commercial-scale cod farm, whose ocean pens are located north of Norway’s western port city of Trondheim. The company expected to harvest its first fish this June or earlier, according to news reports.
Besides Friends of Frenchman Bay, Portland-based Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation also opposes the Frenchman Bay venture. The coalition works with lobstermen and small aquaculturists to protect coastal Maine from industrialized aquaculture. Under current state regulations, the group’s executive director Crystal Cannery warns American Aquafarms potentially could expand its proposed leases from 110 to 1,000 acres. In a related move, Rep. Robert Alley (D-Beals) has drafted legislation that would cap the total size of any one aquaculture application and prohibit the transfer of leases without public hearings.