A Kingfish Maine employee recently holds an adult yellowtail fish at the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin in this undated photo. Credit: Photo courtesty of Kingfish Maine

Despite not having yet begun construction of its planned $110 million land-based fish farm in Jonesport, Kingfish Maine is on the verge of harvesting the first Dutch yellowtail it has grown in Maine.

Kingfish, a subsidiary of Kingfish Zeeland in the Netherlands, was granted the state, federal and municipal construction permits that it needed to start work on the project in 2022. But before that it began cultivating yellowtail at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin.

Those fish, described by the company as “a limited release,” are being harvested this month, according to the company.

The harvest is a milestone after years of efforts by aquaculture companies to establish new large-scale fish farms in Maine in hopes of tapping into the Northeast consumer seafood market. For decades, the only large-scale fish farmer in Maine has been Cooke Aquaculture, which has spread out its salmon production among two dozen floating pen sites off the coast of Hancock and Washington counties.

While Whole Oceans has been fully permitted for a large-scale land-based salmon farm in Bucksport and it has slowly begun construction and has yet to start cultivating fish in Maine. Two other potential fish farms — Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast and American Aquafarms in Frenchman Bay — have run into legal and regulatory setbacks that could derail their proposals.

That makes Kingfish the first of the new big proposed farms to harvest farmed fish in Maine.

Because the facilities at the Franklin research site are geared toward startup operations, and not full-scale production, Kingfish anticipates harvesting 8,000 pounds of yellowtail this month — a fraction of what it will produce once the Jonesport site is in operation. The company will have some leftover to keep as its broodstock for its next round of production, it said.

The company hopes to produce 8,500 metric tons, or roughly 18 million pounds, of yellowtail in Jonesport each year.

Bristol Seafood will process the yellowtail at its Portland plant before it is sent to restaurants in Maine, Boston, Washington D.C. and California in the next two months, Kingfish officials said.

“We have worked three long years to arrive at this point,” said Megan Sorby, Kingfish Maine’s operations manager. “We are excited to bring the first Dutch yellowtail from Maine to the market.”

Yellowtail, formally known as Seriola lalandi, often is identified as hamachi on sushi menus and is considered to be one of the most viable species, both commercially and biologically, for land-based aquaculture operations.

The company still is dealing with challenges to its approvals, though some already have been unsuccessful. Opponents have said that the project will harm the water quality of Chandler Bay, where water will be drawn for use in the company’s recirculating system before it is treated, and then discharged back into the bay.

An appeal filed by two opposition groups — Eastern Maine Conservation Initiative and Roque Island Gardner Homestead Corporation — of the state’s approvals are pending in Kennebec County Superior Court.

After the town’s appeal’s board upheld the planning board’s decision last month, Protect Downeast, a group of Jonesport-area residents and property owners, appealed the town’s planning board approval to Washington County Superior Court in Machias.

Sorby said that the company could move ahead to start construction, despite the pending appeals, but that it likely will wait to let those appeals substantially play out before it breaks ground in Jonesport. She said that the construction project  — which will feature a 500,000 square-foot building, covering more than 10 acres, and four pipes that protrude between a quarter-mile and a half-mile into Chandler Bay — is expected to take about 18 months to complete.

Sorby said the company expects to continue producing small quantities of fish at UMaine’s Franklin facility until operations at the Jonesport fish farm begin.

Construction of the fish farm is expected to create 100 full-time temporary jobs while the operation of the completed farm is expected to create 70 full-time jobs, Kingfish officials have said.

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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....