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?