GOULDSBORO, Maine—It’s nursery season at Springtide Seaweed, Maine‘s largest seaweed farm. Sarah Redmond, Springtide’s founder and lead operator, is cultivating microscopic kelp spores at its saltwater facility here, just across Frenchman’s Bay from Acadia National Park. Each day, Redmond checks the progress of the tiny plants, which have taken root on strands of ordinary string wrapped around PVC piping and submerged in one of several large, saltwater tanks. Later this month, once the kelp seedlings have reached a length of about 2 millimeters, Redmond will transfer them to lengths of submerged lines in the Gulf of Maine.
Aquaculture – the cultivation of fish and aquatic plants for food – is a $1.5 billion industry nationwide. That includes both freshwater catfish and tilapia farms as well as marine or saltwater operations like Springtide. Maine’s abundance of clean water, its long history of working waterfronts, and its proximity to markets such as Boston and New York have made it one of the leaders in marine aquaculture production, rivaling Alaska and Florida. The rise of small-scale, artisan operations like Springtide promises to continue that trend. So too does a trend toward large-scale, land-based operations, which have traditional seafood farmers and some residents of coastal towns wondering if this spike in the industry could damage some of the state’s most valued coastal ecosystems.
According to a 2017 report from the University of Maine, aquaculture in Maine has a direct economic impact of $73.4 million in product and another $35.7 million in labor income, making it one of the leading drivers in the state’s financial health. A 10-year strategic plan for the state, issued by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in November 2019, identifies the growth of the industry as a key place for economic development.
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Historically, the main source of revenue for the state has been its thriving shellfish industry, particularly the cultivation of oysters and mussels. But in 2004, Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian corporation, began large-scale salmon farming in Maine, including both an inland hatchery and offshore pens. (Cooke Aquaculture made international news twice last year: first after undercover videos revealed inhumane handling of fish at the hatchery, and then again when it was found to have overstocked its pens and failed to conduct environmental and pollution sampling.) In the past year, several other foreign seafood corporations including Denmark’s Nordic Seafood and New Zealand’s Kingfish Zeeland have submitted permits for industrial facilities as well.
In her strategic report, Mills encouraged this kind of development.
“The United States currently imports approximately 95% of its salmon, and Maine can grow salmon to solve this need without freezing or airfreight,” Mills wrote. The state’s Department of Economic and Community Development recently launched a new campaign initiative: Land-Based Aquaculture: The Right Fit for Maine, which seeks to promote opportunities in the state for land-based or recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) – an emerging technology that allows corporations to farm saltwater fish in facilities as far-flung as Indiana and Dubai.
Both the consumer demand for farmed fish as well as cultivated marine vegetables such as kelp is expected to rise dramatically over the next decade. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that, by 2030, about 62% of all fish consumed worldwide will be grown in aquaculture facilities, an increase of about 70% from just 10 years ago. A new study published by The Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a Portland-based organization dedicated to fostering resiliency in the Gulf of Maine, finds that the growing aquaculture industry could yield nearly a thousand new jobs for the state in the coming decade.
Chris Vonderweidt is the aquaculture program manager for the research institute and was one of the lead architects of the study. He says the impetus for the study came out of the recognition that Maine is uniquely poised to develop new aquaculture opportunities and that retaining qualified workers there can be a challenge.
“We saw that, internationally, the industry hasn’t been able to provide the education and training needed to meet new growth,” he says. “We don’t want workforce constraints to hamstring the industry here. Waterfront jobs have always been an important part of the state’s heritage, and we want to ensure that continues to be true.”
Vonderweidt’s team found that RAS may be one of the most significant contributors to that growth. At least four such initiatives are in the proposal and permitting process here in Maine, including Danish corporation Nordic Seafood’s proposed facility, which is under review by the state.
As proposed, the Nordic Seafood project would raise more than 72 million pounds of salmon annually on its 56–acre campus in Belfast, Maine. The site would utilize about 5,200 gallons of water per minute, a combination of both saltwater taken from the nearby Gulf of Maine and freshwater obtained from groundwater wells, city-owned aquifers and reservoirs. The permit application indicates the facility would discharge more than 7 million gallons of filtered wastewater into the Belfast Bay each day.
It’s that last figure that concerns many local residents. Marsden Brewer is a commercial fisherman and scallop farmer who also serves as president of the Maine Aquaculture Co-op. Brewer was one of more than a dozen fishermen and fish farmers who spoke out against the Nordic project at a statewide hearing this spring.
“After years of misuse, we’re finally starting to see a lot of good things happening in this bay,” Brewer says. “After 30 years, the codfish are coming back. Herring and alewives, too. The outfall from producing 60 million pounds of fish a year is just wrong for the bay and wrong for the species, too.”
Redmond, Springtide’s founder, agrees. She worries that discharge from these large-scale operations could jeopardize her organic certification and the health of smaller companies like hers. More than that, she says, she worries they could damage the entire marine ecosystem.
“Foreign entities are looking to exploit rural communities and the health of our ecosystems,” Redmond says. “We should be returning abundance to the sea and working to restore natural systems and local economies, not letting European corporations cheat both.”
Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, disagrees. He thinks there’s a place in the state both for industrial facilities like the Nordic RAS and independent firms like Redmond’s.
“One of the things that makes Maine aquaculture quite unique is the diversity of our sector. We have both very large companies and small-scale farmers. It’s that diversity that gives our sector a resiliency we wouldn’t have otherwise.”
He points to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis as evidence of that resiliency.
“The markets available to our small-scale shellfish farmers disappeared virtually overnight,” he says. “It was the larger companies that offered them a place in existing distribution streams.”
Smokey McKeen is the head of operations for the Pemaquid Oyster Company, located on the Damariscotta River. He says that 80-90% of its sales are to restaurants. The business took a huge hit when dining establishments closed due to the pandemic this spring.
“We bounced back a little after the restaurants reopened to outside dining, but I don’t know what to expect now that the weather is getting colder here.”
Last month would have been the 20th anniversary of the company’s oyster festival, a fundraiser for marine conservation and education that regularly draws thousands of visitors to the farm. They canceled that out of concerns for public health.
“I have enough concerns keeping all of my five employees safe,” McKeen says. “We weren’t going to run the risk of endangering others.”
He’s currently applying for monies made available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture coronavirus food assistance program, which just added aquaculture as a farming category.
As for the concerns Redmond and other existing Maine fishing and fish-farming communities have raised about further damage large-scale aquaculture may cause to their businesses, Belle, of the Maine Aquaculture Association, says he hasn’t seen any evidence suggesting that is true. He trusts the state’s clean water regulations and policing system to ensure water quality, even in places like Belfast Bay.
“Seven million gallons a day of discharge may sound like a lot, but if you look at where that water would have gone otherwise and the permit requirements, I actually think it’s a red herring,” Belle says.
Deborah Bouchard, director of the University of Maine’s Aquaculture Research Institute, agrees. “These fishery corporations are way ahead of the curve on environmental impact. They’re very responsible,” she says. “And it’s in the interest of national food security that we not only raise our own food but also keep it close to the communities that rely upon it.”
Representatives at Nordic Seafood did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, nor did they answer questions about the environmental impact of their discharged wastewater or where their salmon will be sold.
The company’s proposed Maine complex faces multiple legal challenges as it enters its final stage of permit approval. Of particular concern are both the damage to surrounding wetlands that would occur during construction of the facilities and the installation of two large pipes that would control intake and discharge for the campuses’ many fish enclosures. One organization promising continued formal objections is Upstream Watch, a Maine-based nonprofit with a mission of ensuring scientific review of any project that may impact the state’s rivers and watersheds.
Amy Grant, the nonprofit’s president and founder, says her organization is not opposed to truly sustainable aquaculture projects, particularly those that incorporate hydroponics to minimize nitrogen and solid waste, or those that utilize a sustainable amount of water in their daily operations. Nordic, she argues, fails on both counts. She’s worried that the discharge from the Nordic facility will further raise the temperature of the Belfast Bay, which, as part of the Gulf of Maine, is already rising faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. And she’d like to see the state do more to protect its freshwater supply as well.
“These corporations are tapping into our aquifers and extracting massive amounts of water without paying for it. This is ancient, underground water that was never going to end up in the bay.”
Grant hopes the state will increase efforts to ensure that its most valuable resources remain under the protection and stewardship of Mainers themselves.
“There are at least four major industrial fish farms on the horizon for Maine. It’s time for the state to step up and become a real leader in regulating industry and our environment. We can have both here, but that will mean truly holding the feet of these corporations to the fire and making sure they do what’s best for our state and its working waterfront heritage.”