EASTPORT, Maine — It’s feeding time in the salmon cage at Cobscook Bay’s Broad Cove, and the 25,000 fish are hungry.
The twice-daily dinner arrives on a barge loaded with 80 tons of feed pellets. From his control console, the operator maneuvers a 3-inch plastic pipe to deliver the feed. In a matter of minutes, an underwater camera shows that the salmon have satisfied their hunger, as evidenced by a sprinkle of feed that draws no takers. At that point, the operator turns off the feeder to avoid wasting food and polluting the water.
The centralized, automated feeding system is among changes now in place as Maine’s salmon farming industry mounts a vigorous comeback five years after it collapsed when the three biggest players sold off their operations and left the state.
The new owner is Cooke Aquaculture Inc., a family-owned business across the border in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that has invested $60 million to restore production to its former peak levels. It also plans to put an idle processing plant back in operation next year.
Salmon farming was a bright spot in the Down East economy before a series of setbacks set the stage for the industry’s downfall.
The federal government’s decision to list wild Atlantic salmon as endangered on eight Maine rivers led to tougher regulations. A disease outbreak forced the destruction of large numbers of fish, and a federal judge fined two Maine producers for violating the federal Clean Water Act by fouling the sea floor with excess feed, medications, feces and other pollutants.
“It was kind of like a perfect storm,” said George Lapointe, commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources.
Dramatic changes in the economics of the business added to the woes of salmon farmers, Lapointe recalled. Prices tumbled from $5 a pound to less than $2 for a time, he said. “It went from a specialty product to a commodity product.”
Today, industry leaders say the industry is healthier, more efficient and more in tune with the environment. And it’s looking to expand.
Maine and Washington are the only states where salmon is farmed, but their combined output is dwarfed by that of major producers such as Chile, Norway, Scotland and Canada. In the U.S., catfish holds sway as the top aquaculture species, outstripping salmon and various types of shellfish.
Maine’s 2008 salmon harvest is likely to total more than 20 million pounds, the highest since production peaked at 36 million pounds in 2000 and 29 million a year later, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.
Cooke has adopted a number of changes, including writing into state law a requirement that saltwater pens lie fallow for a period of time after fish are harvested. The salmon industry says this prevents the growth of pathogens that cause deadly illness in fish.
The process involves a three-year cycle in which it takes two years to grow the fish and another year to pull out the nets and steam-clean and disinfect the cages while the lease site remains fallow.
“It’s almost more work to fallow a site than it is to run it,” said David Morang, who manages Cooke’s operations in Eastport and Lubec. But he says the process has proved beneficial because the salmon have remained disease-free thus far.
Cooke also has upgraded the netting at its pens to keep predators such as seals and birds from getting in and the salmon from getting out. The improved containment system includes an underwater predator net, a primary net to keep fish in and a bird net over the top.
“These cages could withstand hurricane-force winds,” said Morang, adding that no salmon have escaped since the new containment was put in. “When they’re here, they’re here to stay,” he said.
Escapes have been a major concern because pen-raised salmon could spread disease to their wild cousins and even interbreed with them, fouling up their genetic makeup.
Back in 2002, a December storm packing gusts of up to 120 mph led to the escape of an estimated 100,000 fish, raising an outcry from conservationists.
Broad Cove, the largest of the salmon farms that Cooke runs in Eastport, Lubec and Machiasport, is home to a 40-acre array of 19 pens, each of which can accommodate 25,000 fish as they grow from 9-inch smolts to 10-pound salmon ready for harvest.
The pens are circular, an accommodation to salmon that swim in circles and don’t like corners.
Broad Cove had been leased by Heritage Salmon, a Canadian-owned company that Cooke bought in 2004. In 2006 it also acquired the Maine operations of two Norwegian companies, Fjord Seafood’s Atlantic Salmon of Maine and Stolt Sea Farm.
At its peak, the industry had a dozen companies that employed a total of 1,200 people, mostly in Washington County where good jobs are scarce.
Environmentalists who fought the aquaculture operators in court remain skeptical about Cooke’s operations, despite its improvements.
Raising huge numbers of fish in pens creates a breeding ground for pests and disease, discharges large amounts of waste and poses a threat to wild salmon, they say.
“Basically it’s hard to trust this industry, and whether they should even be doing what they’re doing is kind of a bigger question,” said Josh Kratka, an attorney with the National Environmental Law Center.
But with the collapse of groundfishing, aquaculture remains one of the few activities aside from lobstering that provides jobs along eastern Maine’s working waterfronts.
Morang remembers how he faced the prospect of having to leave Maine at age 50 in search of work when Heritage Salmon went under in 2005.
There was little hope for the failed industry until the Cooke family moved in, he said, increasing the number of salmon in Maine pens from 300,000 in 2005 to 3 million a year later. The plan is to maintain production at roughly that level.
Cooke now processes its Maine salmon in St. George, New Brunswick.
By January it plans to reopen the 28,000-square-foot plant in Machiasport that it inherited when it bought Atlantic Salmon.