With his high-backed chair and banks of keyboards, windows and video screens, Frank Lank could be in an air traffic control tower. Instead, he’s at sea watching fish swim inside netted pens in Machias Bay.
The 53-year-old Eastport man sits aboard a floating platform, essentially a two-story office, overseeing the automated feeding of Atlantic salmon at 12 of 24 sea sites Cooke Aquaculture USA, Maine’s sole aquafarmer of the prized kingfish, leases from the state.
He also watches them for signs of trouble. Are they surfacing too often, as if they’re agitated or lacking oxygen? Are they overeating? Lank carefully notes fish behavior and sea conditions so the company’s divers and veterinarians can review it and, if necessary, take follow-up action.
“You’re always learning from [the salmon]. You can never ever settle,” Lank said during a recent workday. “I mean, granted you have a number of years of experience and all that, which probably kind of gives you a little bit of a leap up, but there’s always some kind of new way that you can do what you do.”
Atlantic salmon farming has made news in Maine recently with construction of a $180 million, indoor salmon farm due to start in Bucksport this fall and another entirely land-based farm seeking permits to build in Belfast.
But so far, the only company raising salmon in Maine is New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture, which has its operation spread between hatcheries in western Maine, pens in the Gulf of Maine and a processing plant in Machiasport. Cooke’s operation, partially on land and partially in pen stocks at sea, differs from the operations proposed in Belfast and Bucksport in key ways.
The company has been raising salmon in Maine since 2004, and it has effectively built itself a salmon monopoly in the Gulf of Maine in that time. Since 2016, the New Brunswick-based corporation has invested about $2 million in its Maine facilities and it expects some growth in its operation over the next two years, according to company spokesman Andrew Lively.
But the company will not grow nearly as much as it might otherwise in that time, Lively said. Cooke has an application pending to lease its 25th sea site from the state, but has delayed pursuing it due to strong opposition from Jonesport residents, including lobstermen who fear losing access to acreage at the bottom of the Gulf of Maine, Lively said.