Fish farming in Downeast: Pay the fine, take the cannolis …

Map shows where salmon pens are proposed in Frenchman Bay (green boxes) just north of the Porcupine Islands

By Lincoln Millstein

SOMESVILLE, Jan. 2, 2021 – Fire, ready, aim.

It’s the prevailing business model, some cynics say, for companies wishing to operate fish farms in Maine waters: Pollution? Whoops. I’ll just pay the fine.

It was a little over a year ago Cooke Seafood was fined $156,213 for 11 violations of its state permit. Cooke is the only sea-based salmon aquaculture firm in Maine, with pen farms in Washington and Hancock counties, as well as a hatchery on Gardner Lake in East Machias and a fish processing facility in Machiasport. It’s also a multi-billion-dollar company. A $156,213 fine is like a large tip at one of its company events.

“Clearly these miniscule fines are having precious little effect on Cooke’s illegal behavior, which is precisely why I have so little faith in fines administered by the Maine DEP,” said Lawrence Reichard, a Belfast journalist and environmentalist.

“In that same year, 2018, Cooke Aquaculture posted revenues of $2.8 billion, meaning the $156,123 fine assessed against Cooke Aquaculture by DEP amounted to a mere .006 percent of Cooke Aquaculture’s revenue for that year,” Reichard said.

Such benefit analysis is a reprise of the famous “Pinto memo” of 1968 when Ford Motor Company concluded it was cheaper to settle lawsuits over deaths from its exploding Pintos than to recall all the cars and fix the problem. “For companies with environmental issues, fines are simply a cost of doing business,” Reichard said.

Donald Eley, president of the Friends of Blue Hill Bay, said the fish farming industry is banking on weak state and local governments, enticing bureaucrats with the promise of jobs and property tax revenue.

The state of Maine is addicted to the promises of aqua farms “whether they come true or not,” said Eley. “They all claim they can meet the state guidelines … but who’s monitoring it?”

“It becomes a self-monitoring, self-regulated industry,” Eley said.

Since the slap on the wrist against Cooke, two huge fish farming proposals are being debated here in Down East – one a land-based operation in Belfast and another in Frenchman Bay. In Jonesport, Kingfish Maine, which is owned by a Dutch aquaculture firm, announced plans last fall for a $110 million land-based farm where it hopes to produce 13 million or more pounds of yellowtail each year on a 94-acre site overlooking Chandler Bay.

“In Belfast, Nordic Aquafarms (see rendering) will pump 1,600 pounds of nitrogen a day into Belfast Bay, where pollution has already closed 4,093 acres to shellfishing,” Reichard said. “That’s 16 times the amount currently discharged on average by Belfast, a city of about 7,000. And that effluent will create algae blooms, and attract and feed sea lice, to the detriment of wild fish populations.”

Nordic said it is almost impossible for fish to escape from land-based fish farms, but 20,000 fish escaped from a land-based fish farm in Vagan, Norway, as recently as July 28, 2018. Escaped fish compete with wild fish for spawning grounds, destroy wild-fish spawn, and breed with and weaken wild fish stock, Reichard wrote in a letter to the Bangor Daily News.

“Their entire premise is based on no mistakes happening,” Reichard said. “And that’s extremely unrealistic.”

In late December, two groups – Upstream Watch and Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area – began legal action to overturn decisions by the town of Belfast and the state granting Nordic the necessary permits. An excellent overview of that case appeared in the Penobscot Bay Pilot.

Closer to Mount Desert Island, the in-water fish farm proposed for the middle of Frenchman Bay by another Norwegian company has many locals alarmed. These are the modern-day Vikings, true to their tradition of seeking opportunities outside of resource-constrained Scandinavia. And what a prize Mount Desert Island must be! It even comes with its own fiord.

“I am terrified,” said Sarah Redmond , who runs an organic seaweed farm on Stave Island off Gouldsboro only about a mile northeast of the salmon farm proposed by American Aquaculture. She worried that her certification for organic products would be jeopardized if the water is polluted.

“It’s an absurd proposal,” Redmond said. “It’s a permit to pollute. It’s not possible to capture all the fish waste” as proposed by American Aquaculture. “Most of the waste is dissolved in the water.”

The Norwegian company proposed to deploy 30 pens, each 150 feet wide, in lease sites in the bay. The pens would support a projected annual production of 30,000 metric tons, or about 66 million pounds of the fish.

“Those 66 million fish would be raised in a plastic polymer bag sitting in the ocean just north of Bar Harbor,” wrote Kathleen Rybarz, president of Friends of Frenchman Bay, in a letter to the Portland Press Herald. “Raising may be too generous a word, rather, the fish will be swimming in circles in containers in the water. The cold clean waters of Maine get pumped in and water gets pumped out as the fish swim in circles. And that methodology leads to so many questions about the potential damage to the environment.

“What will the water pumped back into the bay be like? Will it affect our local marine animals and plants?,” wrote Rybarz, who also is chair of the selectmen in Lamoine. “Will the state have effective regulations in place to do no harm to the environment? How will the container be kept clean? How many jobs for locals will it really create?”

One of the problems cited by scientists on dumping any disruptive matter in Frenchman and Blue Hill bays, which are conjoined by the Union River, is that the two bodies of water flush very poorly. The Friends of Blue Hill Bay have been working for the past 20 years to understand the ecology of Blue Hill Bay, and its twin on the eastern side of MDI.

“The effluents from net-pen aquaculture would have little negative impact on the marine environment if the aquaculture sites were located in the open, well flushed, and vigorously mixing waters of the Gulf of Maine,” wrote Neal R. Pettigrew, oceanographer at the University of Maine. “However, the bays and estuaries of the Gulf of Maine are generally much more sensitive to aquaculture activities and caution needs to be exercised when instituting these activities in our sheltered waters.

“The addition of any fish pens would pose a great threat that dissolved oxygen in the lower water level would be overly depleted and algal blooms would occur in the upper water level, potentially introducing Red Tide to the Bay for the first time,” Pettigrew wrote.

“The extremely slow currents in Upper Blue Hill Bay would result in significant waste build up and the development of anaerobic bacterial mats under the fish pens and damage to the bottom dwelling community. The existing conditions and attendant risks appear to be so high that they should not be ignored.”

“Why is it in this area of Maine – an area that attracts millions of visitors a year? Whose interests are really being served?” Rybarz asked.

Threats to existing fisheries and water-based businesses may be a better launching pad to fight the fish farms because the state is sensitive to grievances from incumbent constituents. It’s folks like Sarah Redmond and Zach Piper of Hancock, a young lobsterman who now makes a living in Frenchman Bay.

“The areas this Norwegian-backed company is proposing to turn into industrial aquaculture with two 50-plus acre leases for large fish pens, is heavily fished by lobstermen and has been for years,” he wrote in a letter to Bangor Daily News. “I am not a fan of foreign corporations making their money at the expense of Maine people.”

American Aquaculture’s ambitious proposal to site an industrial farm in the middle of one of Maine’s most prized bodies of water is like asking for trouble. But trouble is not foreign to its CEO, Mikael Roenes, who volunteered during an interview with Bill Trotter of the Bangor Daily News that he has a white-collar criminal past in Norway, and that he has spent time incarcerated because of it.

Roenes told Trotter he got into legal trouble more than a decade ago in Norway when he was working as a stockbroker and “made some promises I could not keep” to investors he had lined up in an attempt to acquire a Norwegian company.

He lost all his money, repaid his investors in full and eventually was convicted on charges he did not specify and spent two and a half years at a minimum-security prison, he said.

“I am very open about my past,” he said. “I accept full responsibility for my actions and have paid my debt to society.”

But did he take the cannolis?


Ashley Bryan’s long journey gets a boost from old friend, ex-teaching partner


SOMESVILLE, Oct. 21, 2020 – They shared a patois that only artists seem to understand, ruminating over the use of paint, light, depth and, of course, color. They spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours fussing over such details. Many days, Henry Isaacs would start with coffee for both. And many nights, they would end with rum.

Both lived in the village of Islesford on Little Cranberry Island. They taught art together. Perhaps someday they will be known as the Islesford School, like the Hudson River School or the Black Mountain School.

Today, neither is in Maine, both with health challenges. Isaacs is in Vermont, as he battles a neurological affliction. His former teaching partner, the venerated Ashley Bryan, is living with relatives in Houston, where he contracted Covid-19 in the spring but has since recovered. Ashley Bryan turned 97 in July. Gov. Janet Mills proclaimed his birthday “Ashley Bryan Day in Maine.” Last week, Bryan injured his painting wrist when he used it to break a fall. Like all of us, 2020 has not been a felicitous year for Ashley Bryan. It was the first year since 1988 he has not been in Maine.

I first saw Ashley Bryan in the Islesford Dock bar about 15 years ago when it was still owned by Dan and Cynthia Lief. He was a visual non-sequitur in my hardened expectation of Maine – an elderly African American in a restaurant which can be accessed only by boat for most customers. If Maine’s African American population is less than 2 percent, I can’t imagine what the percentage is for its islands.

About 10 years ago the Wendell Gilley Gallery in Southwest Harbor exhibited a retrospective of Bryan’s work curated by Isaacs. There were other small exhibits: College of the Atlantic and the Islesford Historical Museum.

“But none were the major hotspots of art,” Isaacs said.

That changed on Oct. 21 when the Bates College Museum of Art began a seven-month exhibition called “Beautiful Blackbird: Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan.”photograph

“Ashley Bryan was so marginalized in the art history of Maine,” said Henry Isaacs. “He hasn’t been in front of people – often by accident … he’s never been part of the commercial world, the mainstream art world.”

“For one thing he’s an African American,” Isaacs said. “And he has chosen not to be in the commercial world.”

The Bates exhibit is the first museum show of significance to exhibit Bryan’s art, Isaacs said. “This has been in the planning for a long time to make Ashley’s art available to the people of Maine.”

Ashley Bryan, Iris #1, n.d., acrylic on canvas, 48 1/2 x 36 3/4 in., Bates College Museum of Art, gift of Henry Isaacs and Donna Bartnoff Isaacs, 2020.2.9

Isaacs and Bryan are a generation apart. But they spent 45 years of their lives collaborating, as strange bedfellows on an island in Maine, which seems to draw a higher lot of talented artists.

“It’s an opportunity to take a look at his enormous influence at attracting artists to Maine,” said Isaacs who credits Bryan for his own development as an artist.

REGISTRATION IS OPEN !  2014 Islesford Painting Workshops With Henry Isaacs and Ashley Bryan

Ashley Bryan was born in Harlem in 1923. Here is Wikipedia’s account of his childhood:

Bryan attended the Cooper Union Art School, the only African-American student at that time. He had applied to other schools who had rejected him on the basis of race, but Cooper Union administered its scholarships in a blind test: “You put your work in a tray, sculpture, drawing, painting, and it was judged. They never saw you. If you met the requirements, tuition was free, and it still is to this day,” explained Bryan.

At the age of 19, World War II interrupted his studies. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned to serve in a segregated unit as a member of a Port Battalion, landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was so ill-suited to this work that his fellow soldiers often encouraged him to step aside and draw. He always kept a sketch pad in his gas mask.

Here is a moving interview of Bryan by the BBC in which he talks about his work as a American military stevedore in Scotland during the war and his impersonation of a Scotsman. The recording includes important historical information like how the Nazis never expected that the Americans could use a French beach as a loading zone for the war’s supply chain.

In 1946, he entered Columbia University’s graduate school to study philosophy. He wanted to understand war. After the war, Bryan received a Fulbright to study at the University of Marseille at Aix-en-Provence and later returning for two years to study at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

Bryan taught art at Queen’s College, Philadelphia College of Art, Lafayette College, and Dartmouth College. He retired as emeritus professor of art at Dartmouth in 1988. Those academic commitments cost Bryan time to devote to his own art, and to market his brand, Isaacs said, which he probably was loathe to do anyway.

Ashley Bryan and Zoe Paint Lil's Garden limited edition image 0

For good or for bad, artists who cajoled galleries to sell their art saw a path to being commercially successful. “I had 22 galleries around the world selling my paintings,” Issacs said. Meanwhile, Bryan was trying to run Dartmouth’s fledgling art department on a shoe-string budget, meager salary, and trying to teach something other than black studies.

Bryan was not published until he was 40 years old, according to Wikipedia. In 1962, he was the first African American to publish a children’s book as an author and illustrator. “I never gave up. Many were more gifted than I but they gave up. They dropped out. What they faced out there in the world–they gave up.”

In the late 1980s, when Bryan retired from Dartmouth, he moved to Little Cranberry. In addition to painting, writing and illustration he also enjoyed making puppets, building stained glass windows from beach glass, creating papier-mâché, and making collages. 

Ashley Bryan (center) walks with Islesford students

There he befriended Isaacs. They collaborated on a teaching partnership which lasted eight years, attracting students to Islesford. As Isaacs began to succeed commercially. he started to acquire some of Bryan’s art. Issacs and his wife, Donna, paid for the construction of a small museum called the Story Teller Pavilion on Islesford. Donna taught at the small school on the island and they worked to rename it Ashley Bryan School.


As Henry’s health began its downward spiral, he felt the urgency to do something profound with his collection of Bryan’s art. So he donated 50 pieces to Bates College which in less than a year curated and created the exhibition known simply as “Let’s Celebrate Ashley Bryan.” The physical exhibit is circumscribed by the limits posed by the pandemic but by Nov. 1, Bates expects to exhibit more than 50 of his art work and a virtual tour online.

Henry Issacs is pleased with the exclamation point indented on the life of his friend. His effort on behalf of Bryan was truly a labor of love.

Despite all this newfound energy and publicity, it’s still extremely difficult to buy one of Bryan’s paintings. The Ashley Bryan Center, which was formed in 2013 to “preserve, protect and care for Bryan’s art, his collections, his books and to promote his legacy” offered only eight pieces of block prints online and none of the fabulous paintings which I saw in the house next to the pavilion on Islesford. I wrote the center an email and got no response.

It would be tragedy to see the legacy of Ashley Bryan fall into the hands of the less committed. If not Henry Isaacs, he of a failing health, then whom? Issacs said Bryan once told him he would rather throw all his paintings into the ocean than see them atrophy. The time has come to share his abundant body of work with art lovers all over the world.