Nearly four years after the first of four proposals to build large fish farms along Maine's coast was announced, construction has yet to begin on any of them. Pictured from left to right, top to bottom, are a defunct seafood plant in Gouldsboro that American Aquafarms plans to acquire; the road off Route 187 in Jonesport where Kingfish Maine plans to build; a site in Belfast where Nordic Aquafarms would like to bury its intake and outfall pipes to Penobscot Bay; and a sign at Whole Oceans' property in Bucksport. Credit: File / BDN

This year will be remembered in Maine, at least in part, as when interest in developing four large-scale fish farms on the state’s eastern coastline continued to intensify.

It also will be remembered by some as yet another year during which — nearly four years since plans for the first proposal were announced — none of the four separate projects began construction.

The projects are at various stages of the permitting process, with some being fully approved and others not yet having any permits. All have shied away from announcing specific timetables for when they hope to start to build.

Nordic Aquafarms

The biggest of the four proposals, and the first to be announced, is a $500 million land-based salmon farm near the Little River in Belfast. Nordic Aquafarms plans to produce more than 72 million pounds of salmon per year at the site.

The project received its final outstanding permit this summer, with local, state and federal authorities all giving the green light to move forward with construction.

But Nordic Aquafarms also has encountered fierce opposition, with critics fighting the company in court with a civil suit over the ownership of a strip of intertidal land that is instrumental to the project. This summer, the city of Belfast got involved by pursuing eminent domain in order to get the company an easement to cross the intertidal zone with its intake and outfall pipes to get to Penobscot Bay.

The controversial move angered many and led to the filing of another civil lawsuit by opponents, this one against the city of Belfast.

This fall, the judge presiding over the land use case found in favor of Nordic Aquafarms. Although company officials hailed the civil court decision as a “complete victory,” opponents are not giving up and are planning an appeal of the decision.

Kingfish Maine

Kingfish Maine is the only large fish farm proposed for Washington County and would be the only one that grows yellowtail instead of salmon.

Unlike Nordic Aquafarms’ proposal in Belfast, Kingfish has faced little-to-none local opposition to its plans in Jonesport. The large land-based fish farm is slated for 94 acres of shorefront property on Dun Garvan Road, overlooking Chandler Bay.

The company, a subsidiary of Netherlands-based Kingfish Co., said it plans to invest $110 million in developing the site and to grow 13 million pounds of yellowtail each year in a 10-acre building.

Lobstermen have questioned the company about whether its operations would affect the ecology of the bay, where many fishermen set their gear, but Kingfish officials have assured them than any water drawn from the bay for its aquaculture tanks will be returned at the same ambient temperature as the bay and as clean or cleaner than it was.

Last month, Kingfish said it had received its final permits from Maine Department of Environmental Protection and had completed its purchase of the 94-acre site. The company still needs to obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has to get approval from the town’s planning board, but could start construction sometime next year.

American Aquafarms

Roughly 30 miles west as the crow flies, American Aquafarms is looking to establish a large-scale salmon farming operation in Frenchman Bay — the only one among the four large proposals that would be located at sea, rather than on land. It has estimated it would spend roughly $300 million on floating infrastructure in the bay and on redeveloping a closed seafood plant in Gouldsboro into a hatchery and processing site.

American Aquafarms has run into staunch opposition from environmental groups and residents of Frenchman Bay, which is highly visible from several mountain peaks in nearby Acadia National Park. Opponents to the project say that the firm’s bid to grow 66 million pounds of salmon each year in the bay would jeopardize water quality in the bay, create gear conflicts with fishermen, and that the industrial scale is inappropriate for the site.

American Aquafarms’ proposal is under review by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Marine Resources, but it has yet to be granted any permits.

Earlier this month, American Aquafarms said its planned purchase of the defunct Maine Fair Trade Lobster plant — which once was the last sardine cannery in the country and is where American Aquafarms would process its harvest — was “imminent.”

Whole Oceans

Another 30 miles further west, in Bucksport, Whole Oceans was the first of the four proposals to be fully permitted. Like the Kingfish proposal in Jonesport, it also has received little-to-no opposition from local residents or officials.

The planned land-based Atlantic salmon recirculating aquaculture facility, which company officials have said is expected to cost $180 million to build, would be located at the old Verso paper mill site. Town officials have supported it, saying it’s an industrial use and it makes sense at an industrial location.

But construction at the site has yet to begin, and when it might get underway has not been disclosed. The company owns about 100 acres of land at the former mill property along the Penobscot River, 10 acres of which were purchased in late 2020. At the time, Whole Oceans said that with the addition, it needed more time to develop the best designs for the facility, where it plans to eventually produce 44 million pounds of salmon each year.

A company spokesperson said in November that the company is still working on design and that she expected more significant updates in the first quarter of next year.

Small scale aquafarming

Despite the lack of progress in building any of the proposed large fish farms, salmon aquaculture already is a significant industry in Maine because of two dozen smaller penned salmon sites that New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture operates in the coastal waters of Hancock and Washington counties.

Cooke has operated in Maine since 2004, and at times has come under scrutiny for its operations, most recently when an estimated 100,000 salmon died in August at one of its sites off Mount Desert Island.

In 2010, the last year for which annual farmed salmon production totals in Maine were publicly disclosed, more than 24 million pounds of the fish, with a wholesale sales value of more than $76 million, were produced in the state, according to the Department of Marine Resources.

The state has not released production figures for the fishery since then because Cooke has been the sole producer of farmed salmon in Maine, and the company’s production volume is considered proprietary information.

BDN writers Abigail Curtis and Ethan Genter contributed to this report.

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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....