Editorial: Too much to lose

More than a few first-time visitors to Bar Harbor have nearly swerved off the road after glimpsing Frenchman Bay out the driver’s side window. A vast expanse of silver-blue sea interrupted by the emerald-green mounds of the Porcupine Islands is a postcard come to life. Add a tall-masted schooner to the scene and you will have our seasonal guests diving for their Nikons.  

For all its peacefulness, the bay is a humming ecological and economic engine. It is home to seals, seabirds, porpoises, fish and shellfish, including Maine’s iconic lobster. Fishing vessels, pleasure craft, tour boats and cruise ships ply the waters. Small-scale aquaculturists raise kelp, scallops and mussels. 

It is against this backdrop that the patriotically named but Norwegian-backed American Aquafarms proposes raising 30,000 tons of salmon in pens at two 60-acre sites located near Bald Rock and Long Porcupine Island. If successful, Hancock County could become the farm-raised salmon capital of the U.S., especially considering Whole Oceans’ plans for a land-based salmon operation in Bucksport. The Maine Fair Trade plant in Gouldsboro would find new life as a hatchery and salmon processing plant, bringing new jobs to a town that could use them.  

The developers say their system addresses the pitfalls of other pen operations by controlling and treating waste and preventing escapes. And, according to the lease application, American Aquafarms intends to use antibiotics only as a fallback plan, instead relying on the natural setting and vaccinations to protect the fish from disease. Some of the details in the proposal seems downright space-age, including the illustration of a state-of-the-art control room and a net-cleaning robot. The robot, described as “novel,” may be an appropriate metaphor for the whole project: cool if it works, but there could be a lot of bugs to work out.  

The company says it intends to put about $300 million into the salmon farm. It will likely attract investors looking for the next big thing, but what happens if those investors cut bait and move on to the next big thing? Nothing comparable has been done on the Maine coast. It will take an enormous commitment of resources and leadership for the company to deliver on its promises — if it can. 

The state must look to its natural resources for new innovation, but that cannot come at the cost of proven assets. “Not in my backyard” is a tired argument, but there are very real concerns about the environment, the loss of prime fishing grounds and increased boat traffic. 

Members of the aquaculture industry testified against recent legislation aimed at revisiting the Department of Marine Resources’ lease process. They emphasized that the current process is thorough and sufficient to protect Maine’s waters and the many interests there. In our experience it has been. Let’s hope that continues to be the case. Because when it comes to Frenchman Bay, there is just too much to lose. 

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