The future of one of the most controversial aquaculture proposals in Maine history remains uncertain after its application was cut short by state regulators this week.
An official at American Aquafarms said the Norwegian-backed company that wanted to grow Atlantic salmon in nets pens in Frenchman Bay would likely consider its options following the Department of Marine Resources’ termination of its lease applications.
“The DMR response is perplexing to say the least, and the way it has been communicated is a surprise,” Thomas Brennan, American Aquafarms’ director of project development, wrote in a brief email Thursday. “I expect the company owners are taking a pause to understand what this all means for the future.”
The Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday it would no longer review the company’s application for two 60-acre leases off Gouldsboro because American Aquafarms had failed to select an approved salmon egg source.
Following the department’s decision, the state Department of Environmental Protection chose not to move forward with the company’s application for a water discharge license Thursday, adding another regulatory restart to American Aquafarms’ plate if the company wants to proceed with the farm.
The company can reapply for the leases and license, but it would likely add several more years to the permitting process.
Brennan and American Aquafarms CEO Keith Decker did not respond to further requests for comment Thursday.
American Aquafarms wanted to import salmon eggs from AquaBounty, a Newfoundland, Canada-based company. The Department of Marine Resources rejected the idea because the company isn’t on the department’s approved list for eggs sources or hatcheries.
Finding an egg supplier for sea-based farms can be a challenge, said Patrick Keliher, department commissioner.
“There are not a lot of egg sources out there,” he said. “State law is very specific to the strains that can be used.”
Theoretically, Cooke Aquaculture, which has several salmon farm sites off the Maine coast, could have supplied them with eggs, Keliher said, though he didn’t think that likely given the companies would be in competition with each other.
As an alternative, American Aquafarms proposed to obtain eggs from a U.S.Department of Agriculture aquaculture facility in Franklin. That was also rejected by the marine resources department.
“That program was never meant to supply a source of eggs for a grow out for a harvest program,” Keliher said. He said it was more a “genetic bank,” than a commercial farm supplier.
Depending on who you ask, the American Aquafarms saga has either unveiled the weaknesses of the department’s ability to handle these types of applications or shown that the process is doing exactly what it was created to do.
Anti-industrial aquaculture groups Thursday said that, while they are glad American Aquafarms applications were dismissed, they were only done so on a technicality, not over the devastation the project could have caused to the bay. If the company could find the right supplier, it could submit another application and essentially get right back to where things stood before the termination.
“We’ll take the termination for what it is, but I would like to see it put away for the real reasons rather than an artificial reason that would allow them to come back and resubmit in a relatively short order,” said Henry Sharpe, president of Frenchman United Bay, a group that has opposed the project.
State Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, scoffed at the idea that this was a technicality.
The application was tossed out before getting to the initial public hearings and scoping sessions because it couldn’t comply with state law.
“The Maine Legislature has worked hard to create a robust aquaculture lease permitting process with appropriate safeguards in place,” she said. “The termination of American Aquafarms’ permit application is a testament to the effectiveness of our efforts.”
A lot of people wanted to see the department deny the application outright, but Keliher said that’s not how it works.
“We have to follow the law,” he said. “We have to give an applicant due process.”