Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, March 31, 2022
Island towns asked to ban corporate aquaculture
by Leslie Landrigan
A nonprofit called Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation is asking the Island towns to pass a moratorium on industrial aquaculture. Gouldsboro has done it already to try to stymie a salmon farm in Frenchman Bay, and a handful of coastal communities are trying to block proposals for other large-scale fish and bivalve farms.
Crystal Canney, the foundation’s executive director, made her pitch in a Zoom presentation to Deer Isle town officials on March 24. She was joined by Jon Lewis, a consultant to the group who worked for many years as a scientist and diver for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
“Maine has opened the door for corporate and foreign money to buy our waters,” Canney said. “I’m concerned we’re going to sell the coast of Maine to foreign corporations.”
The state’s rules and regulations have set the table for corporate domination of Maine’s coastal waters, Canney said. She said Maine law allows a single entity to lease 1,000 acres in 10 increments for 20 years. Leaseholders can transfer the leases without a mandatory public hearing, she said.
It only costs $100 a year to rent an acre, Canney said, stating that’s a lot of money for a small owner-operator. But for a company that wants to raise 66 million pounds of fish on 120 acres, $12,000 a year is nothing, she said.
American Aquafarms, according to its website, is a Norwegian-funded company that does want to raise 66 million pounds of fish. The company seeks to farm salmon in two 60-acre pens in Frenchman Bay. Five Hancock County towns have either voted to intervene in the permitting process or sent letters to Gov. Janet Mills opposing the project, according to news reports. Gouldsboro, where the fish processing plant and hatchery would be located, approved a 180-day moratorium on large-scale aquaculture projects in November.
But that’s not all. Another company, Acadia Aquafarms, holds one lease for 158 acres in Frenchman Bay and another pending lease for 60 acres to raise bivalves—blue mussels, scallops and soft- and hard-shell clams, Canney said. DMR held a hearing in Bar Harbor on Acadia Aquafarms’ proposal for 48 more acres on March 28.
Another corporate proposal, for a $110 million land-based farm to raise yellowtail kingfish in Chandler Bay, has drawn scrutiny from the town of Jonesport. In Belfast, a plan to build a $500 million salmon farm has encountered legal opposition.
Not opposed to owner-operators
Small fish-farm operations are not the problem, Canney said. She emphasized that the foundation strongly supports small-scale owner-operator aquaculture. But, she said, the law makes no distinction between small and large aquaculture operations.
The foundation has come up with a model ordinance that recommends a moratorium on leases above five acres. “That doesn’t hurt small owner-operators,” she said in a phone interview. “You could have 10 leases of 5 acres each.” Moratoriums would help force a statewide conversation about corporate aquaculture before a gold rush mentality sets in, Canney said.
Lewis, who worked for DMR for 23 years, said state regulators are getting overwhelmed. The department’s aquaculture program once had eight employees, but now it has less than half that, he said.
Town officials said they understand where the foundation is coming from.
“I can see your concern,” said Deer Isle Selectman Peter Perez at the end of the March 24 presentation. The select board has heard three proposals for aquaculture leases, experimental and 20-year, in the past six months.
Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings, who came to the Deer Isle presentation, said she sees it too. “When you have corporate, you just rape the sea,” she said in a phone interview.
But both Deer Isle and Stonington town managers said enacting a moratorium is a big challenge for a small town.
Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher said the town is embarking on its comprehensive plan and will consider the place of aquaculture in the marine resources chapter.
“Under most circumstances, towns prefer to work on ordinances in a systematic way without the pressure of enacting a moratorium,” Fisher said.
Billings said Stonington is looking for feedback from the town’s lawyer and the Maine Municipal Association. Then, she said, the select board will ask Canney to speak on the issue.
“I do think the community has to have a conversation, but it’s going to be very expensive for us to pay for an ordinance and then survive the legal challenges,” Billings said.
Marsden Brewer and his son Bob started the first scallop farm in Penobscot Bay, 11.5 acres off Andrews Island. The Brewers studied how to grow farm-raised scallops in Japan. “The Asian population is way ahead of us in living off the sea,” Brewer said in a phone interview. “In the near-shore waters, you don’t get any piece of it until you get it to a level that works for the communities.”
Japanese scallop farmers are limited to 18 underwater long lines, he said.
Brewer said Maine’s 1,000-acre limit is way too much. He recommends a limit of 50 acres in state waters.
Unless Maine does something about its aquaculture regulations, he said, the coast will be sold off to industrial fish farms. Those big fish farms can create problems with waste and disease, he said.
The lobster industry, said Brewer, is a good model for aquaculture to follow.
“Most of the lobsters are going to three or four corporations, but there’s 4,500 people out there on the water,” he said. “If one fails, the whole thing doesn’t fail. It works.”