December 16, 2018
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Maine aquaculture projects dredge memories of polluted waterways

Nick McCrea | BDN
Nick McCrea | BDN
About a dozen protesters gathered outside an informational meeting on the Nordic Aquafarms, May 9, 2018. Some locals have expressed concerns about how the project will affect the community and the bay.

At a recent hearing in Kittery, so many people showed up to weigh in on the proposed expansion of an oyster-growing operation in a local creek, Department of Marine Resources hearing officer Amanda Ellis had to make a choice.

“Based on the number that we’re seeing we’ve made the decision to postpone the hearing,” she said.

But opponents such as Mike Dowling were still plenty willing to talk.

“I have many concerns, there’s a whole group of us, introducing over 2,500 objects suspended or floating into the creek creates a pinch point, and everyone uses that little sandy beach to go swimming,” he said.

Such complaints do arise with aquaculture enterprises, with neighbors — sometimes including fishermen — worrying about water access, environmental effects and property values. Up the coast in Maquoit Bay, near Brunswick, a proposed 40-acre shellfish farm is meeting some stiff resistance.

And then there’s Belfast, where a proposal to site what would be one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms is stirring talk of the darker days, when the city was dominated by chicken processors.

“The harbor was basically one of the most disgusting bodies of water you can imagine, full of blood and feathers. All the effluent dumped directly out into the bay,” said Ellie Daniels, who owns the Green Store in the heart of Belfast’s lively downtown.

Daniels’ home away abuts the 40-acre wooded site where Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company, wants to build its half-billion-dollar “recirculating aquaculture system.” She is among many in Belfast who fear the city could be re-industrialized.

“It’s the scale of the thing. It’s the fact that it’s a large monoculture; it’s only been theorized that the technologies can work.” Daniels said.

“We just have different objectives in life. And that’s fair. I have to respect that in the end,” said Erik Heim, Nordic Aquafarms’ CEO.

Heim said that in contrast to open-sea salmon pens, his indoor fish will need no antibiotics or pesticides to stay healthy. Skeptics say viral infections will still be an issue, and they worry about discharges to the bay as well. But he said that will treated to reduce potentially harmful elements, such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

“That we don’t want to see go into the bay. So I think in the end you have a residual fraction of what you otherwise would have had,” he said.

Despite meeting as much as 7 percent of the nation’s entire salmon demand, he added, there would be a maximum of about 10 trucks a day backing up to the farm’s cargo bays.

“You can stuff a lot of fish into those tractor-trailers,” he said.

One neighbor, Gef Flimlin, who is building a retirement home next to the site, has a bit of a split perspective on the Nordic Aquafarms project.

“I told Erik that if he ruined my night sky I was going to be really ticked,” he said.

Flimlin said he can relate to concerns about compromising the serenity of the place, not to mention property values. But as a longtime educator in aquaculture at Rutgers Cooperative Extension, he’s also attuned to the idea that local seafood farms can have environmental benefits, too.

“Why can’t people understand that they don’t have to fly this stuff from the other side of the ocean to the United States, and the carbon footprint that’s going to be reduced? Yeah there’s going to be a building there, but think globally and act locally,” he said.

And there are projects around the state where locals focus more on the upside, such as jobs and investment. Just 20 miles up the coast from Belfast is the former mill town of Bucksport.

Economic development director Richard Rotella boats past a closed paper mill whose smokestacks have long-dominated Bucksport’s skyline. He said the traditionally blue-collar town is welcoming a proposed industrial-scale indoor salmon farm, and demolition at the mill is now underway.

“What will be remaining from what you can see here are the blue buildings and one stack,” he said.

Rotella said while many mill towns struggle to transform themselves to suit today’s economic realities, Bucksport is already well on its way. He said Whole Oceans, the Maine-based company behind the new salmon venture, has chosen a fitting site.

“This area right here that we’re driving on right now was the largest spawning grounds of Atlantic salmon at its time. What Whole Oceans is looking to do for the property is to name the road ‘One Salmon Way’ in honor of that tradition,” he said.

Still, when neighbors of a seafood farm do get activated, passions can run high amid complaints that the state tends to rubber-stamp applications. But Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, which oversees most shellfish farms — but not land-based facilities, which fall under the purview of the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife — said he is confident in the process, and encourages public participation.

“You put a farm in place and then the farm starts working and people who are opposed to it start interacting. And then tempers subside, relationships are built and time heals all wounds,” he said.

Just last week, the Department of Marine Resources approved one aquaculture application in Penobscot Bay and turned down another in Scarborough’s Spurwink River.

Keliher said that at the rate that the sector is growing in Maine, he could use a couple more staffers to handle the caseload.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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