The proposed processing site for a proposed salmon farm in Frenchman Bay. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Fair Trade Lobster

A change in leadership is coming to the firm that wants to create a controversial salmon farm in Frenchman Bay. The chief executive officer, who has a criminal record in his native Norway, is stepping aside from his top leadership role.

American Aquafarms CEO Mikael Roenes is stepping down.

CEO Mikael Roenes, who in the late 2000s was found guilty in Norway of more than a dozen charges related to defrauding investors in various companies he had set up, said in a video posted on YouTube that it has always been part of his plan to relinquish his role as the head of American Aquafarms. He said that with other companies he founded, he stepped aside after getting them started so that someone else could run them on a daily basis.

He said he thinks American Aquafarms, which he founded in 2019, is far enough along in its efforts to get approval to grow salmon in Frenchman Bay for someone else to take the reins.

“It makes sense for us to have an American CEO in the company,” Roenes said in the video. “I will always assist the new CEO and make sure I can put passion into the CEO.”

American Aquafarms has not said who will become its next CEO. Mary Erin Casale, a spokesperson for the firm, said Friday that who the next CEO will be will be announced in the “near term.”

Casale did not comment when asked if Roenes’ criminal history was a factor in his decision to step aside as CEO. Roenes, who publicly disclosed his conviction when American Aquaculture announced its plans for Frenchman Bay, makes no mention of his past in the video.

American Aquafarms is seeking state approval to lease two 60-acre sites in Frenchman Bay where they will use 15 floating pens, each of them 150 feet wide, at each site. The pens would have “cutting-edge” designs to contain fish waste, control water temperature and prevent both fish escapes and infiltration by predators and sea lice, company officials have said.

Roenes has projected that the operation would 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 Gouldsboro which 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 Maine Fair Trade Lobster, but has not yet closed on the purchase, according to Casale.

Several area groups have criticized the proposal, saying the operation would jeopardize water quality in the bay, create gear conflicts with local fishermen and that the industrial scale is inappropriate for the site, which abuts Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Roenes’ criminal history — for which he was ordered to serve two and a half years at a minimum security prison and to repay roughly $2.2 million to former investors — has been one of the concerns cited by opposition groups.

Two of those groups, Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation and Frenchman Bay United, said Friday in a joint statement that they did not know why Roenes was leaving the position.

“Regardless of who is CEO, the company can’t run from the fact that their proposal has no support because of its unproven technology, massive pollution, and threats to lobstering, tourism and small-scale aquaculture in and around Frenchman Bay,” the groups said.

Roenes said the new CEO, whoever it will be, needs to have experience with growing a  company in the early stages, must be familiar with the seafood industry, and preferably will have aquaculture experience. A commitment to sustainability, a passion for the work, and respect for the workforce are “key elements to make this a success,” he said in the video.

Without being specific about what his new role might be, Roenes said he will remain part of American Aquafarms after a new CEO is picked.

The project is one of four major aquaculture projects planned along Maine’s coast, and would be the only one of those four that would grow fish at sea.

Nordic Aquafarms and Whole Oceans have proposals to grow salmon at land-based farms in Belfast and Bucksport, respectively, while Kingfish Maine is hoping to grow yellowtail on 94 acres of land in Jonesport.

The 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.

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....