American Aquafarms plans to acquire the Main Fair Trade Lobster plant in Gouldsboro and to invest between $50 million and $100 million to redevelop the site for salmon processing, but the sale is contingent upon getting state approval to grow salmon at 30 pens in Frenchman Bay. The company projects harvesting 66 million pounds of salmon grown in the bay each year. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Fair Trade Lobster

In anticipation of a large-scale salmon farm getting approval to grow fish in pens in Frenchman Bay, Gouldsboro is considering temporarily blocking development on any new large-scale aquaculture operation.

The moratorium, if enacted by local voters, would last 180 days and would be retroactive to Sept. 16, 2021, when local selectmen decided to begin the process of drafting it. In terms of the proposed salmon farm in Frenchman Bay, the moratorium would apply only to the company’s plans to convert an existing lobster processing facility in Gouldsboro into a salmon processing plant.

The stated purpose of the moratorium, according to a resolution that accompanies the proposal, is to give the town time to review and possibly amend its land use ordinances so it can make sure the town’s development regulations are adequate for protecting the “the quality of life and the health and safety of town residents.” It also aims to ensure the development does not have an undue burden on the town’s infrastructure and resources such as water supplies, roads, and public safety departments.

The town’s planning board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed moratorium at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, at the Prospect Harbor Women’s Club in the local village of Prospect Harbor.

American Aquafarms is seeking state approval to lease two 60-acre sites in the bay where it will use 15 floating pens, each of them 150 feet wide, at each site, to produce 30,000 metric tons, or about 66 million pounds, of fish each year.

Fish grown at the site would be processed at a fish plant in the Gouldsboro village of Prospect Harbor that for decades functioned as a sardine cannery and, in the past decade, as a lobster processing site. American Aquafarms has an agreement to acquire the plant from the current owner, Maine Fair Trade Lobster.

Dana Rice, chairman of the board of selectmen, said Monday that the potential impact of the salmon processing facility, which would double as a hatchery, is what has prompted the town to consider the moratorium, which would have no impact on the company’s applications for state permits.

The town does not have any authority over the growing pens American Aquaculture would use out in the bay. But the company likely will have to get planning board approval and building permits from the town in order to convert the lobster Maine Fair Trade Lobster site into what the company says will be a “state-of-the-art” processing plant.

Mikael Roenes, American Aquafarms’ outgoing CEO, has said that the company likely would invest between $50 million and $100 million to redevelop the plant property.

“We need time to look at this and see if our comprehensive plan is adequate to deal with a project like this,” Rice said. He added that the board supports the moratorium, but that board has not taken a position on the proposed development itself, either on the sea-based or land-based components.  The company has not yet submitted any application to the town to redevelop the cannery site.

“Personally, I’m all about economic development and maintaining [a] working waterfront,” said Rice, a lobster dealer by trade.

He said the town had already started the process of updating its comprehensive plan, which the state requires municipalities to update periodically, when the American Aquafarms proposal came along.

“It’s a big change in mission for that property” to convert it from cooking and packaging lobster to hatching and processing salmon, he said. “We need some more information on the whole thing.”

Whether or not local voters decide to enact a moratorium, American Aquafarms officials have said they will continue to work with town officials to help make sure the town’s interests are protected and to bring investment and jobs to Gouldsboro. Converting the former sardine cannery into a salmon processing plant and restoring it “as the economic engine it once was for the community” is a key part of what the company hopes to accomplish, said Tom Brennan, the company’s director of project development.

“American Aquafarms will help to produce food closer to the people who will eat it, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help to diversify the region’s economy, while creating hundreds of year-round, good jobs,” Brennan said. “Ultimately, this project – and a successful aquaculture industry across the state – will result in a stronger, coastal economy and a healthier, sustainable environment for us all.”

Critics of the proposal have focused on the proposed salmon-growing sites in the bay, saying they would jeopardize water quality in the bay, create gear conflicts with local fishermen, and that the large, industrial scale of the project is inappropriate for the site, which abuts Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

American Aquafarms officials have disputed those claims.

The company has said that to address problems that have long been issues for at-sea fish farms, they would use pens with “cutting-edge” designs that allow them to contain fish waste, control water temperature and prevent both fish escapes and infiltration by predators and sea lice.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which will determine whether to issue American Aquafarms waste discharge permits for the two proposed aquaculture lease sites in Frenchman Bay, has scheduled a public online Zoom meeting to gather feedback on the proposal for 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28.

Maine Department of Marine Resources, which will determine whether to issue leases to American Aquafarms for the two proposed pen sites, has not yet deemed American Aquafarms’ lease applications complete and has not scheduled a public hearing to solicit public comment on the proposal.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....