The penstocks of Cooke Aquaculture require lots of maintenance to keep its Atlantic salmon healthy.

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.

Credit: Nick Sambides Jr.

It’s an example of the public skepticism Cooke faces as it tries to grow its share of the United States’ massive Atlantic salmon market, which at this point is dominated by imports. Only farm-raised salmon are available for purchase in American supermarkets, and the U.S. imported $34.5 billion worth in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There is an opportunity for a measured increase in Atlantic salmon growth in the state,” Lively said during a recent tour of Cooke’s Maine facilities. “The people are here, the environment is here and the consumer demand is here, but we cannot grow without more sea sites.”

How it works

Lank is among more than 200 Cooke employees in Maine who grow the salmon from egg size at the company’s hatcheries, then grow them to full size — 10 to 15 pounds — at the company’s sea sites. At the company’s processing plant in Machiasport, workers prepare the fish for human or pet consumption.

It takes three years for Atlantic salmon to grow to maturity. The first 18 months are spent on land at a hatchery and the next 18 months out at sea in a penstock. The company rotates its use of the 24 sea sites it leases, leaving about half inactive at any one time for a year or two, the way traditional farmers leave fields to lie fallow and regenerate.

The penstocks are critical areas that Cooke tries to keep free of contaminants.

One pen can hold 25,000 fish, Lively said.

Credit: Nick Sambides Jr.

To keep pathogens from infecting the fish, all company workers and visitors must place their shoe soles in an iodine solution before boarding a company boat or dock or entering a work area, such as the processing plant.

Workers at the processing plant wear gloves, hair nets and full-body smocks over their clothes to keep the fish as clean as possible. The finished cuts of fish are precisely coded, with each shipping box having information about the sea site where the fish were harvested and individual fish DNA. That helps the company trace a complaint from a customer to the precise batch of fish it came from, and every transition the fish went through, from birth to sea site to processing facility, Lively said.

“One of the things about aquaculture in North America is that this industry is 30 years old. Everything that we’ve done, everything that we’ve developed, has been developed here because it didn’t exist before,” Lively said.

“We’ve had to engineer, develop, learn, study and innovate in biosciences, developing vaccines for fish, developing the proper nutrition for our fish, the nets for fish, the hatcheries,” he added. “All that stuff has to be innovated here. We’ve done that for years and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Fight over the ocean floor

For its 25th site, Cooke seeks to lease 44.4 acres off Jonesport and Beals. But the company’s lease application has run into stiff resistance from lobstermen.

At issue, fundamentally, is space on the ocean floor in the Gulf of Maine. Lobstermen and Atlantic salmon farmers are among those who compete for room in coastal Maine waters to ply their trades.

Lobstermen speaking at a May 22 hearing held in Augusta by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which regulates the use of the ocean floor off Maine’s coast, argued for an immediate moratorium on aquaculture leases larger than 10 acres.

Lobstermen said they feared losing access to ocean floor they have used for decades, crippling their industry, according to a summary of comments made at the hearing on aquaculture lease rules. Some raised concerns about environmental damage from aquaculture operations.

“The main objection is not about aquaculture. It’s about leasing. When the commissioner grants a lease, he is changing the public domain into private property,” said Ernie Burgess, a longtime fisherman from Chebeague Island. “There are no limits on who can get a lease — it can be anyone from anywhere, as long as you meet [the] criteria.”

30 years of development in North America

Cooke has not dropped its application for the lease, but is no longer pushing it with the Department of Marine Resources, choosing instead to share more information to Jonesport-area residents, Lively said.

“There was some, I would say, misinformation about what was going on, how things are going to happen there, so we decided to slow that one down,” Lively said.

Lively refutes claims that aquafarming creates dead zones on the ocean floor. Independent university and government researchers have tracked lobster movements into active aquafarms, showing that the operations don’t hurt lobsters, Lively said.

The stakes are high for Cooke. The U.S. is the second-largest importer of Atlantic salmon, behind the European Union, and the global salmon market reached a volume of 3.7 million tons in 2018, with international market growth expected to reach 4.7 million tons consumed by 2024.

The U.S. imports 95 percent of its Atlantic salmon, giving domestic producers a huge potential market.

‘A fantastic place to raise salmon’

Much of the $2 million the company has invested in its Maine facilities since 2016 went toward filleting machines at the Machiasport processing plant that largely automated the fish-cutting process, helping guarantee more consistent cuts of meat, said Durant Cercone, the plant’s manager.

If it gets the 25th plot, Cooke could probably add as many as 50 workers to its 200-member workforce in Maine ― most of them likely getting employed at the processing plant, Cercone said.

Right now, the processing plant runs five eight-hour shifts a week. More fish to farm would allow its workers to process more fish ― perhaps six 10-hour days a week, Lively said.

The plant processes 45,000 to 70,000 pounds of salmon a day, according to Cercone.

“The state of Maine absolutely is a fantastic place to raise Atlantic salmon,” Lively said, “and the potential for growth is here to raise more Atlantic salmon.”

The amount of growth depends on how many more sea sites Cooke can operate, he said.

Related: Why so many fish farms are slated to open in Maine

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