An update to the aquaculture projects in five Maine communities

Despite optimistic pronouncements months ago from company officials, several of the projects have often been slowed by local opposition.
Frenchman Bay as seen on the water.
Frenchman Bay looking toward Mount Desert Island, not far from where American Aquafarms had proposed growing millions of pounds of salmon in netted pens. Photo by Kate Cough.

Editor’s Note: The following story first appeared in The Maine Monitor’s free environmental newsletter, Climate Monitor, that is delivered to inboxes every Friday morning. Sign up for the free newsletter to get important environmental news by registering at this link.

It’s been nearly a year since Climate Monitor reported an update on the large-scale fish farms making their way through the permitting process. Despite optimistic pronouncements all those months ago from company officials at two of the operations that they would already be well underway on construction, only one, Whole Oceans in Bucksport, appears to have made much on-the-ground progress on its goal of growing fish in pens.

The rest have been slowed by legal challenges. Let’s go through them.

Belfast

Nordic Aquafarms wants to raise more than 60 million pounds of salmon a year at a $500 million land-based facility on the Little River. Opponents have been fiercely fighting the proposal since its announcement five years ago, and filed another lawsuit this week against the company and the city of Belfast.

Up to this point, the legal cases have focused primarily on the mudflats across from the proposed facility, where Nordic Aquafarms wants to discharge treated wastewater from the plant.

The latest suit, filed by property owners surrounding the site and the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, an organization formed to protect the mudflats, is the first to challenge land within the actual proposed building site.

In the filing, opponents of Nordic Aquafarms argue that there are deed restrictions on part of the land that prevent development on the site and require it be kept in “natural condition” to protect the surrounding watershed.

Those restrictions, according to this week’s court filing, were put in place in 1973, when the land was transferred from the state of Maine to the city, and were kept in place when the city transferred the land to the Belfast Water District in 1987 and, finally, when the water district transferred the land to Nordic Aquafarms last year. The deed specifies that the restrictions “run with the land,” which typically means a condition stays in place even if the property is sold.

Last March, five days after the land was transferred to Nordic Aquafarms, the city attempted to get rid of the restrictions. The most recent lawsuit argues that the city was not allowed to do so, in part because it didn’t have rights over the property after it was conveyed to the Belfast Water District, and in part because the restrictions were intended to stay in place even when the property was sold. The city fired back yesterday, according to The Republican Journal, asserting that the claim is baseless.

All of this is separate from the case over the intertidal zone. Opponents of Nordic Aquafarms recently won a victory in that case when the Maine Supreme Court found that neighbors of the proposed farm (who oppose the project) are rightful owners of the land where the company wants to put its intake and outflow pipes. That ruling means Nordic Aquafarms is at risk of losing a key lease issued by the state Bureau of Parks and Lands. That’s the subject of another lawsuit.

Finally, the city, which has been supportive of Nordic Aquafarms, is also fighting opponents of the plans in court over an August 2021 action in which the city council took eminent domain to protect the company’s access to Penobscot Bay, which opponents say is unconstitutional.

None of this litigation has come cheap: opponents of Nordic Aquafarms have spent more than a million dollars to fight the proposals so far, according to public filings.

Bucksport

Developers in Belfast are likely envious of Whole Oceans, which began cleanup and erosion control work on the site of a planned salmon farm in Bucksport last July, four years after buying the former mill site.

That work is now informing the company’s construction plans and permitting efforts.

Whole Oceans was the first company to propose such a facility in Maine and has faced the least public opposition, perhaps in part because the company plans to revive a former mill that shuttered in 2014, displacing more than 500 workers. The site is also being used as a professional development facility for Maine Maritime Academy, with classrooms, meeting spaces and a conference hall.

Gouldsboro

It’s been nearly a year since the state terminated an application by American Aquafarms to raise 60 million pounds of salmon in floating pens in Frenchman Bay (the only water-based plan among the proposals).

The company still owns property in Prospect Harbor, however, and owes money in the state — an engineering firm based in southern Maine recently asked a judge to put a lien on property owned by American Aquafarms, according to reporting by The Ellsworth American.

Although the Norwegian company had previously said it was committed to raising fish in Maine, a representative acknowledged to the paper that he wasn’t sure whether it would file another application.

“Anyone paying attention would agree that the [previous] process was complicated,” said Thomas Brennan, the company’s director of project development.

Brennan was referring to the firestorm that erupted at the announcement of the plans, which drew the ire of conservation groups and local residents and spawned a nonprofit, Frenchman Bay United, to oppose the project.

Jonesport

Kingfish Maine, the sole non-salmon operation of the bunch, is making progress in its efforts to grow yellowtail kingfish at a $110 million facility on 93 acres of land on Chandler Bay, having received all necessary permits from local, state and federal agencies, according to reporting by Maine Public.

Meanwhile, the company has been growing fish at the UMaine Center for Cooperative Research in Franklin, and plans a harvest of 10,000 pounds this April.

But Kingfish isn’t out of the hot water just yet, and is likely to face an appeal in Superior Court by groups concerned about the project’s environmental effects, including the proposed discharge of water into Chandler Bay, that have challenged state and local permits issued to the project.

Opponents of the plans recently lost a case before the Jonesport Board of Appeals but have vowed to keep fighting the project, which has some local support, as evidenced by the rejection by residents last year of a proposed moratorium on large aquaculture projects by nearly 2-1.

Millinocket

Lastly, and most recently, two economic development groups announced last month that they had leased 45 acres on the site of the former Great Northern Paper Mill with the intent of using hydropower to grow Atlantic salmon in a $120-$140 million recirculating aquaculture system.

Xcelerate Aqua, the company founded by former Nordic Aquafarms President and Co-Founder Erik Heim and former Nordic Aquafarms Executive Vice President Marianne Naess told Seafood Source that the site will include feed storage, a hatchery, growout facilities, and the supporting infrastructure for those operations including processing, oxygen storage, back-up power, and a digester for bio waste. The company has reportedly yet to file permits but has said it would like to start construction next year.

It’s not the first time such a facility has been proposed at the site. Previous plans to grow salmon there were delayed after investors grew skittish seeing the pushback other groups were getting, according to reporting in the Bangor Daily News.

In the midst of all of this, Maine lawmakers are considering several proposals that would beef up regulation and oversight of aquaculture in Maine, including LD 487, An Act to Establish Coastal Waters and Submerged Lands Regional Planning Commissions, and LD 586, An Act to Protect Maine Fisheries from the Effects of Industrial Recirculating Aquaculture Operations.

We’ll be following those as they develop, but that’s all for now!

 

To read the full edition of this newsletter, see Climate Monitor: New lawsuit filed against Belfast salmon farm, and an aquaculture update.

Kate Cough covers climate change and the environment for The Maine Monitor. Reach her with story ideas by email: kate@themainemonitor.org.

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Kate Cough

Kate Cough is editor of The Maine Monitor. Before that, she served as enterprise editor for the Monitor while also covering energy and the environment and writing the weekly Climate Monitor newsletter. Before joining the Monitor, Kate was a beat reporter for The Ellsworth American and digital media strategist for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. Kate graduated with honors from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Magna Cum Laude from Bryn Mawr College.
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