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?


Annual alewife counting in Somesville ..


SOMESVILLE, May 29, 2020 – An osprey dives and snatches one and immediately turns the fish facing forward to cut down the drag. These are amazing mobile creatures built for the mission. The eagle which was hanging around to harass the osprey to drop the prey is nowhere to be seen. Eagles are lazy. They sit at the top of the food chain and prefer others do the heavy lifting. They also aren’t as adept as the quicker osprey to lift themselves back into flight.


Although I did not see one, seals are sometimes seen chasing the alewives all the way to the bottom of the fish ladder at Mill Pond.

A couple of opportunistic gulls are hovering. Twenty five yards away a family of Canada geese with newborn chicks are oblivious to the cacophony.

We are steps away from the back of the one-room library here, and the annual rite of passage for alewives – also called river herring – has begun. For city folks like me, this is a visual aphrodisiac. I’m trying to process the multiple activities and doing my best to understand the cycle of life before me.

I am properly masked and distanced from Billy Helprin, director of the Somes-Meynell sanctuary which operates the annual count on Mill Pond next to the historic selectmen’s building. Researchers from the College of The Atlantic are tagging some fish to track their migration patterns and to gather behavorial data.

The return of alewives to Maine’s inner waterways is an epic environmental achievement, and I am grateful to Billy for allowing me to participate (see my post below for the dam removal in 1999 which sparked this movement).

Alewives are a basic food source for just about every living thing in Maine – from striped bass, to lobsters, to otters, to loons, and the ones mentioned above. Since the removal of two dams on the Kennebec River, more than 27 million alewives have returned. Thousands of dams were constructed in the 19th century by the lumber industry.

Alewives are anadromous. They co-exist in salt water and fresh water lakes, where they spawn in the spring. Fish ladders such as the one here assist the fish to swim upstream. You may read more about them here

If you would like to view the fish here, you may cross the historic bowed bridge in the village to view the thousands of fish, including lake perch, in the pond below.

Final Mill Pond alewife count ..

Here is the final report on the 2020 alewife count from Billy …

“The total number that we all counted at the Mill Pond is 30,363 (4 times last year’s very low # of 7,608, and about 80% of 2018’s 37,678); at Long Pond we (mostly JF Burns) counted and moved by net 9,660 from trap into the lake (almost 19 times last year’s 512!!, 78% of 2018’s 12,353, 111% of 2017’s 8,669 – lots of variation here for sure). 
This year’s run has been much better than I had feared it might be given last year’s drop. Last year’s low may have had to do in part with drought/low water conditions in the summer of  2015 and 2016.

We have continued to fine tune the complex fish passage “machine” (system) from Long Pond to Ripples Pond to Somes Pond to the Mill Pond and finally to the saltwater cove in Somesville – in both directions. What works going up is not necessarily what works for outbound fish. Each big rain event or significant depletion of water level necessitates adjustments to the system. As Rusty and Julie know from having the stream below the 2nd dam in their backyard, conditions can change quickly and actions need to be undertaken to block or open channels, and to herd and net fish out of deadend pools. “