A Maine Fair Trade Lobster sign and the plant's iconic tall metal fisherman stand outside the shuttered and unoccupied seafood processing plant in the Gouldsboro village of Prospect Harbor on Nov. 30, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A fish aquaculture firm that hopes to grow salmon in pens in Frenchman Bay is on the verge of acquiring a former sardine cannery in the local village of Prospect Harbor, according to a company official.

When the sale goes through, American Aquafarms will become the third owner of the plant in the past 11 years to promise to bring it back to life and dozens of jobs to town. The plant was the last sardine cannery in the United States when Bumble Bee Foods closed it down in 2010, and since then it has been used to process lobster by two different lobster companies.

“That’s not finalized yet,” Thomas Brennan, American Aquafarm’s director of project development, said Friday about the pending purchase, which he described as “imminent.” 

He said he expects American Aquafarms to occupy at least part of the building this winter as it waits for approval from state and federal agencies to grow salmon in Frenchman Bay.

“My understanding is that [the sale] is coming to a conclusion,” Brennan said.

Brennan did not disclose the purchase price for the plant, which sits on 11 acres on the village waterfront. The assessed value of the property is nearly $2.8 million, according to the town’s assessing records.

East Coast Seafood, Maine Fair Trade Lobster’s parent company, quietly shut down the sprawling 100,000 square-foot facility earlier this year after having used it for processing lobster from 2013 through at least last fall. The power to the site had been shut off, and the pipes in the building drained for the winter, Brennan said, but American Aquafarms is looking to have the electricity and water turned back on.

Dana Rice, chairman of Gouldsboro’s board of selectmen, said East Coast Seafood moved out of the plant last spring and had stopped processing lobster at the site months before then. He said it has been difficult seeing the plant sit dark and empty when it has been a focal point in the community, and Gouldsboro’s largest employer, for more than 100 years.

“It’s been dormant for some time,” Rice said. “The town has worked hard over the years to keep it going. I don’t like to see it idle.”

A notice posted outside the main entrance of the shuttered Maine Fair Trade Lobster Plant in Gouldsboro advises people to stay 6 feet apart from each other to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The plant has remained closed this year and is unlikely to reopen unless it is purchased by salmon aquaculture firm American Aquafarms. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Last fall, American Aquafarms said it had an agreement to buy the vacant building and the 11 acres it sits on from East Coast Seafood, contingent upon American Aquafarms getting state approval to grow salmon in pens at two 60-acre aquatic lease sites in Frenchman Bay — a controversial proposal that has been met with stiff opposition by some area residents and conservation organizations. 

Salmon grown in Frenchman Bay would be processed at the waterfront plant, located in the local village of Prospect Harbor, where American Aquafarms also would operate a hatchery for the salmon.

Over the past several years, East Coast Seafood has invested heavily in creating what it calls a “state-of-the-art lobster processing line” at a processing plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that it took over when it acquired scallop processing firm Seatrade International in 2012.

Less than 3 years ago, when East Coast Seafood shut down a processing plant in Groton, Connecticut, it said it would also make “substantial new investments to the Prospect Harbor, Maine, facility to increase production capacity, optimize the production process, and enhance labor needs.” 

The company never provided details about what those investments might be and they didn’t seem to materialize.

Random items rest on a counter and lean against the wall of a maintenance shed with a missing door at the Maine Fair Trade Lobster Plant in Gouldsboro on Nov. 30, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

This July, the company held an online auction of more than 300 pieces of equipment at the plant, selling off stainless steel tables, compressors, sinks, racks and other items.

“Even the shovels, the dustpans and brooms,” Rice said. “It was a complete clean-out.”

The plant employed 128 people in 2010 when Bumble Bee Foods shut down the sardine canning operation. Maine Fair Trade Lobster employed 130 people there in 2013, its first year of business in Gouldsboro. Live Lobster, an interim owner that went bankrupt in 2012, employed 70 people there in 2011. More recent employment levels at the plant are unavailable.

Earlier this week the doors were locked, no lights were on inside the building, and no one came to the door when a visitor knocked at the main entrance. The only things visible through ground-level windows all around the building were empty rooms and corridors, vacant clothing hooks, and warehouse-sized spaces that were almost completely dark, with only the late November sunlight filtering in from outside.

The shuttered Maine Fair Trade Lobster plant in Gouldsboro sits on 11 acres of land next to Route 186 in the local village of Prospect Harbor. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Fair Trade Lobster

When the sale agreement with American Aquafarms was announced in October 2020, officials at East Coast Seafood said their plans included “continued operation at the facility, until the sale to Atlantic Aquafarms is complete.”

East Coast Seafood officials did not respond this week to requests for comment about the closure of the plant.
The quiet closure of the lobster plant this year stands in stark contrast to when the Stinson Seafood plant ceased operations 11 years ago. That closure received national attention because it represented the end of sardine canning in the United States, a once-vibrant industry that inspired John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row” and in the mid-20th century employed thousands of people on the East and West coasts.

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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....