Given slow progress with permit approvals and ongoing legal challenges, none of the four planned fish farms will likely open before 2024.
Computer renderings of Whole Ocean's indoor salmon farm, slated for construction at the former Verso paper mill site in Bucksport. Work on the site started in June, several years after the initial proposal. Credit: Courtesy of John Gutwin of Pepperchrome

The development of large-scale fish farms along the Maine coast took big steps forward in 2022, but it will likely be several years before any of the planned projects are completed.

Four major projects have been proposed and are in various stages, ranging from just starting construction to not even having an application before the state. All said, it’s probable that none of the farms will have any fish in the water before 2024 or 2025.

That doesn’t worry the fish farmers, as several said there isn’t a rush to be the first operating in Maine. In fact, most want others to succeed and do so responsibly. None could ever fill the public’s demand for seafood alone, but one misstep by any of them could create headaches for all of them.

Whole Oceans was the first of the state’s four large-scale projects to actually get construction underway when it started site work in June. But any undertakings at the land-based salmon farm planned for the old paper mill site in Bucksport have been slow rolling as work has largely been kept to debris cleanup and erosion control, while design for the overall site continues.

Building won’t occur before spring and town officials have said that the company has not put in any applications for a new lot it bought after it got its initial approvals in 2019.

A spokesperson for the company, which has said it wants to grow 44 million pounds of salmon annually, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how long it would take for the farm to get up and running. Past applications said construction of the entire facility could take as long as 10 years.

Kingfish Maine, the only planned large-scale farm that wouldn’t raise salmon, received its final approvals to start building a yellowtail farm in Jonesport earlier this year. Voters in the Down East town showed their support for the project after rejecting a moratorium aimed at stalling it.

But Kingfish remains tied up in legal challenges, as does its southern neighbor Nordic Aquafarms, a planned land-based salmon farm in Belfast. Both companies say it probably will be years before they can actually spend their time raising fish and not sitting in courtrooms.

Nordic Aquafarms is awaiting a ruling from the state’s law court on a dispute over the ownership of an intertidal area instrumental to the project, spokesperson Jacki Cassida said. The company expects a ruling in its favor soon. If that happens, construction would take about five years. Salmon would likely start growing in tanks before that, but everything is in a “holding pattern” with the current appeal, Cassida said.

Kingfish Maine has already overcome challenges on its state approvals, but neighbors that own an island along the Down East coast recently appealed the Board of Environmental Protection’s affirmation that the state made the right decision in approving the farm’s permits. Another group also plans to challenge the local approvals for the yellowtail operation.

Megan Sorby, the operations manager at Kingfish, was confident that the permits will be upheld, but said appeals could be lengthy.

“It’s just another delay tactic,” she said.

If Kingfish wins those out, Sorby expects it would take up to two years to have fish growing in tanks. The buildout would probably take about three years, depending on construction lead times and other factors.

American Aquafarms, the controversial water-based salmon farm proposed for the waters off Bar Harbor, is likely the furthest from becoming a reality. The Department of Marine Resources rejected the company’s application in April due to issues with the farm’s proposed egg source.

Tom Brennan, the farm’s director of project development, said Wednesday that the investors behind the initiative have been “restructuring” the business.

“Obviously, we need to adapt because what was being presented was fraught with challenges,” he said. “Realistically the project will have to take on a different form.”

What that could look like, isn’t quite clear. Brennan said it was unlikely that American Aquafarms, which wanted to grow millions of pounds of salmon in Frenchman Bay net pens, would be interested in moving to the land-based formula that other projects have got approved. Downsizing could be a possibility, though.

“I’m hopeful this doesn’t go away entirely,” he said. “We’re developing a strategic plan to make it a successful attempt.”

The project had opponents on all sides. Environmentalists, fishermen and locals all lined up to oppose the project, fearing it could choke out other life in the bay. But even the farms that don’t have such widespread opposition have had a tough time building steam.

Despite the holdups, Kingfish’s Sorby saw bright spots.

The company has been leasing space at the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, and recently imported four 33-pound yellowtails to join the current 20 fish that live there and will serve as the broodstock for the farm.

For now, these might be the best chance Mainers have to eat any of the fish from these long-off farms. Yellowtail grows quickly and Kingfish expects to harvest some to sell next year.

With construction delayed, she’ll take it.

“It certainly feels like a victory for us,” she said.