Credit: George Danby

Mainers treasure healthy, wild places, but as a state, we also need prosperity and good jobs for people and their families. There are two developments on the horizon that can protect our waters and native fish while making Maine a leader in sustainable aquaculture.

Recently, Whole Oceans in Bucksport and Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast announced plans to build land-based salmon farms, part of an emerging trend that’s attracting global investment. The race is on to bring larger volumes of environmentally friendly, U.S.-grown salmon to market.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation’s support for these proposed salmon farms may come as a surprise. Two decades ago, we were on the front page of Maine’s newspapers expressing our concern that wild salmon stocks and the health of our coastal bays were being threatened by a sea-cage industry plagued by large escapes, increased densities of sea lice and diseases such as infectious salmon anemia.

While significant regulatory and industry improvements in Maine prevent the large farm escapes of the past, in Canada we are engaged in legal, regulatory and public advocacy battles with industry and governments where new sea-cage farms are being sited with little regard to wild species or the environment. At the same time, we have been supporting the development of alternatives to growing salmon in sea cages next to rivers where wild salmon run in Maine and Canada.

In 2011, we began a partnership with the Conservation Fund’s Freshwater Institute in West Virginia to assess the biological, technological and economic requirements of commercial-scale, land-based salmon aquaculture. These trials have involved growing tens of thousands of salmon in large tanks under one roof.

On land, growers control water temperature, light and feeding while keeping fish separate from marine parasites and pathogens. Trials at the Freshwater Institute have shown that land-based salmon can be grown without vaccines, antibiotics and pesticides. The result is that land-based salmon farming has little or no impact on wild salmon or other fish populations, marine mammals, crustaceans, or seabirds.

There has been concerns raised about the amount and location of waste that would be discharged by the proposed farms in Belfast and Bucksport. Again, the advantage of land-based aquaculture is the ability to eliminate pathogens and control discharge unlike the sea cages where all wastes flows directly into the marine environment.

Our studies and the experience of the industry is that 99 percent of solids and phosphorus are removed as well as 60 percent of the nitrogen, which compares very favorably to other industries. In addition to Maine’s strict permitting processes for discharge, these companies have every incentive to maintain a healthy coastal environment because they are using both salt and freshwater in their tanks.

Our conclusion is that land-based salmon farming is an innovative, sustainable alternative to sea-cage aquaculture. There is little if any impact on wild species or the environment, and salmon are not stressed by predators and parasites.

Land-based salmon farms require large initial investments. Nordic Aquafarms and Whole Oceans are proposing to spend almost a combined half billion dollars to set up their projects. This level of investment is already bringing jobs to Maine, with both companies announcing recent hires and the promise of more employment to come.

At the same time, it’s important these projects work for the communities where they operate. We believe they will. The companies have been listening to local concerns and making every attempt to earn trust and approval. We are confident these companies can become models of environmentally sustainable aquaculture and make Maine a leader in this industry.

Andrew Goode is the vice president of U.S. programs for the Atlantic Salmon Federation, which is dedicated to the conservation, protection and restoration of wild Atlantic salmon and the environment on which they depend.

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