Amercian Aquafarms, a Norwegian-owned firm founded in 2019, has announced it has an agreement to purchase an 11-acre seafood processing facility in Gouldsboro. Credit: Dave Cleaveland, Latitude Image, S.L. / via Maine Fair Trade Lobster

A Maine aquaculture company plans to buy the Gouldsboro property that was home to the nation’s last sardine cannery, and use it as part of a salmon- and cod-farming operation.

American Aquafarms said Friday it has reached an agreement to buy the Maine Fair Trade Lobster processing plant in the Gouldsboro village of Prospect Harbor. The property was a sardine cannery for a century until that business shut down in 2010.

The company plans to build a hatchery and processing facility on the 11-acre site. It would use the facility as part of an operation to grow finfish species such as salmon and cod at ocean sites in Frenchman Bay.

The purchase price for the site was not available Friday.

This June 22, 2011 photo provided by the Live Lobster Company shows A billboard-sized aluminum fisherman standing outside what was the last full-time sardine cannery in the U.S. in Gouldsboro , Maine, now holding a lobster trap instead of a tin of sardines. Bumble Bee Foods closed the plant in April 2010, but Massachusetts-based Live Lobster Co., resurrected it and awaits the arrival of new equipment to begin processing lobster meat. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Officials from the company, which was founded last year by a Norwegian firm, have met with area lobstermen to discuss possible pen sites around the Schoodic Peninsula, and met Thursday night with Gouldsboro officials, spokesperson Dianna Fletcher said.

The new operation at the Prospect Harbor site could be a big deal for Gouldsboro and surrounding communities, said Dana Rice, a longtime lobster dealer and chairman of the town’s board of selectmen. For years, he said, the town has done what it can to ensure that the cannery building continues to be used for producing seafood, but now it looks like it could be replaced entirely with brand-new buildings.

“There would be a totally different plant there altogether,” Rice said. “It’s absolutely critical to keep working waterfront there. It has huge potential for the town and the area.”

Rice said that he is not sure how much money would be invested, or how many jobs the company would create, but that his sense is the size of the workforce would be in the same range as it was under previous owners. The plant employed 128 people when Bumblebee Foods shut down sardine canning operations in 2010, and Maine Fair Trade Lobster employed 130 people there in 2013. More recent employment levels at the plant were unavailable.

A company spokesperson for East Coast Seafood Group, the parent company for Maine Fair Trade Lobster, confirmed the sale agreement on Friday but released no details. She said the company will continue to buy lobster from Maine fishermen and use the Maine Fair Trade Lobster brand. This year, she said, the company has invested money in and continues to grow its workforce at a processing plant it operates in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Fletcher said the American Aquafarms growing pens that would be in the ocean would have “cutting edge technology” and would be different from pens currently in use by Cooke Aquaculture, a Canadian company that has multiple lease sites for growing salmon and other finfish species in the coastal water of Hancock and Washington counties.

According to American Aquafarms’ website, the floating pens it would use would capture all fish waste and food residue, preventing it from getting into the surrounding water. The new pen design would eliminate fish escapes into the ocean and the ability of sea lice to get into the pens with the fish. It also would prevent larger predators from getting into the pens and would reduce the need to use medicine and other chemical treatments on the fish.

Global AS, an investment company based in Norway, founded American Aquafarms in 2019 after the founding of Norcod, a Norwegian cod farm with two facilities in operation, according to company officials.

East Coast Seafood and Garbo Lobster acquired the 100,000 square-foot plant at a foreclosure auction in 2012, and have been running the facility ever since as Maine Fair Trade Lobster, processing and selling lobster products such as cooked and raw lobster tails and claws.

Those two companies’ acquisition of the plant came after another lobster company renovated the facility and ran it briefly as a lobster processing plant.

The proposal from American Aquafarms is the latest fin fish aquaculture development initiative to materialize along Maine’s coast, where three other firms are pursuing plans to build entirely land-based aquaculture sites.

Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms is proposing to build a $500 million salmon site in Belfast, but has faced fierce opposition from some area residents. Whole Oceans is looking to develop a $180 million salmon farm at the former Verso Paper mill site in Bucksport.

Kingfish Maine, which is owned by a Dutch aquaculture firm, announced plans last fall to expand to North America with a $110 million fish farm in Jonesport, where it hopes to produce 13 million or more pounds of yellowtail each year on a 94-acre site overlooking Chandler Bay.

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....