A state-of-the-art salmon processing plant in Machiasport that closed five years ago for lack of fish is back in business, providing 80 full-time manufacturing jobs in a region of the state plagued by chronic unemployment.
A rare shot of good economic news, the reopening marks the latest step in the recovery of Maine’s salmon farming industry that went belly-up five years ago after a series of setbacks that included a disease outbreak and pollution fines imposed by a federal judge.
“This is a major milestone for us,” said Nell Halse, spokeswoman for Cooke Aquaculture, a family-owned business in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that took over the three biggest salmon producers in Maine.
With the purchase of Atlantic Salmon of Maine, which had been owned by Norway’s Fjord Seafood, Cooke inherited the 30,000-square-foot plant that processed salmon taken from eastern Maine pens for shipment to markets and restaurants around the country.
But with only 300,000 fish placed in the water in 2005, the company had no choice but to close the plant that was then only 8 years old.
“At that time, we promised the community that we would rebuild the sector,” but the company needed about 3 million fish in pens to justify operating the plant, Halse said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we decided to open the plant anyway.”
The plant, which features some new machinery and equipment, reopened in mid-November with about 50 workers and since has added 30 more.
Cooke hopes to have the work force up to 100 by month’s end.
In Washington County, which has an unemployment rate of 8 percent, employees drive up to an hour to work at the plant because the jobs pay well and include benefits, Halse said.
Gov. John Baldacci plans to visit the plant Wednesday to join the Cooke family and their employees at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The resumption of salmon processing in Washington County demonstrates that the region’s aquaculture sector has a bright future, said Commissioner John Richardson of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
Richardson said another fish farming company, which he was not at liberty to identify, has expressed interest in locating in the same part of the state.
“There’s a real interest in aquaculture in the state of Maine, and a lot of it has to do with the branding of a Maine product,” he said. “The Maine brand is a very strong product brand, and people are looking for Maine products.”
The Cooke plant produces filets and portions but expects to begin processing whole fish later this year and will be looking to expand to other value-added products, possibly including smoked salmon, and new packaging methods to keep fish fresher longer. The plant now operates 40 to 50 hours and four to five days a week, but expects to expand to a six-day-a-week schedule soon.
Unlike most fish processing operations, the Cooke facility is not contingent on seasonal shifts in the catch or even on weather.
“Our fish are harvested every day, so the fish are like a swimming inventory,” Halse said. “In fact, the fish in our waters don’t come out of the water until there’s a customer on the other end.”
Halse said the expansion hinges on the acquisition of additional salmon farming sites that will enable Cooke to reach the annual production goal of 3 million fish.
New lease sites are needed because the company’s pens lie fallow for a time after harvesting to prevent the growth of pathogens that can cause deadly illness in fish, she said.