JONESPORT, Maine — Critics of a land-based fish farm proposal from Kingfish Maine are getting louder, hoping to convince the local planning board that allowing the company to build a facility off Route 187 would be a bad idea. But local supporters also are speaking out, and seem to outnumber the opponents.
About 60 people attended an informational meeting hosted Monday by the company at the Jonesport fire station. Some at the meeting questioned Megan Sorby, Kingfish’s operations manager, and said information released by Kingfish was misleading or inaccurate, but others in the audience voiced their support for the project.
The area has long been reliant on the lobster industry, but with concerns about the long-term viability of that fishery and a need to shore up the local economy, the land-based fish farm could be what’s needed to help.
When someone asked for a show of hands, only about a dozen people raised theirs to indicate they were against it. Roughly two-thirds of the people in the room then raised their hands to show they are in favor of it.
“There are many in this room who think this would be very good for our town,” said Jonesport resident Lynn Alley, eliciting cheers and applause from others at the meeting.
Still there are concerns, including what impact the $110 million proposal might have on Chandler Bay. The company would grow roughly 13 million pounds of yellowtail on land at a 94-acre property on Dun Garvan Road, but it would draw water from and then discharge it back to Chandler Bay.
Holly O’Neal, a local fisherman, said she is worried the plant could cause algae blooms by releasing too much nitrogen into the bay, which could harm eelgrass beds, and that the 1-inch mesh screen on the intake pipe won’t be small enough to spare smaller creatures that get sucked in and killed by the plant’s filtration and sterilization system.
“We’re concerned it isn’t being adequately planned or thought out,” O’Neal said. “I don’t think Kingfish would be a good neighbor.”
Frank Smith, a lobsterman who chairs the town’s planning board, also said he has concerns about the intake and discharge of water in Chandler Bay. He said after the meeting that, despite his concerns, the local board’s scope in reviewing the project is limited, and that the state Department of Environmental Protection already has approved permits for the intake and discharge pipes.
Kingfish officials have said that they would treat and filter the water before it is discharged into the bay, and that it would be cleaner going back out than it was when it came in, but some residents have doubts. Sorby acknowledged that nitrogen generated by fish excrement would be released into Chandler Bay, even though all discharged water will be treated before it is pumped out. But she said the nitrogen won’t be enough to affect oxygen levels in the bay.
If the fish farm is built, the company will allow local residents to observe the collection of water samples near the discharge pipe, which will be analyzed by an independent lab, Sorby said, That way they can know the water quality test results are accurate.
“You don’t have to believe me,” Sorby said. “You can come out and see for yourself.”
Smith said the planning board has looked over Kingfish’s application for a local building permit, but the town’s review has been put on hold while DEP is considering an appeal by The Sierra Club of the pipes’s approval. He says he has to be objective about whether the fish farm will meet the town’s local building codes, but still is worried about how the plant will affect the bay’s water quality, which is not specifically within the planning board’s jurisdiction.
“It’s a tough spot to be in,” he said.
Though people had differing opinions about the proposed fish farm, nobody disputed how important the lobster industry has been and still is to Jonesport and to its sister community of Beals, located just across Moosabec Reach.
But, as some pointed out, the fishery’s future dominance is in doubt. Maine’s lobster industry appears to have begun a slow decline, in terms of the volume of statewide landings, and it is facing ever-tighter restrictions from federal laws aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales, the population of which is believed to be approximately 360 individual animals.
For 2020, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Beals was the state’s third-most valuable fishing port, with $19.34 million worth of fish and other marine species brought ashore, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources. That same year, Jonesport had the highest volume of marine landings in all of Maine, with more than 12 million pounds of commercial landings. In terms of value and volume, as in the rest of the state, lobster represents the vast majority of the local haul.
Problems within the lobster industry have a trickle down effect on the town. In Jonesport and Beals, for instance, the number of children enrolled in the elementary and high schools has been dropping steadily for decades, according to local resident Bimbo Look.
“When you have a school built for 300 students, and there are only 65 kids in it, it’s a problem,” Look said. “How long are we going to be able to keep a high school with 50 or 60 kids?”
Look, whose family owns and operates a local lobster dealer business, said he has as much at stake in the long-term viability of the lobster industry as anyone, but that there need to be other economic opportunities in town to attract and keep young families.
“This is a great opportunity for our town,” Look said.