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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 5, No. 2


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Friends of Blue Hill call for restraint on Maine’s salmon farms

By Maureen Kelly

Salmon farming is big business in Maine, generating approximately 90 percent of the revenues of the $64 million aquaculture industry, according to the state’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR). This year DMR received 51 applications for new aquaculture lease sites on the coast for finfish and shellfish. The aquaculture industry is poised for growth, but salmon farmers are feeling the pinch as some environmental groups call for increased monitoring of fish farms, stricter regulations, and in some cases, a moratorium on new salmon farms.

Most of the state’s salmon farms are located in Cobscook Bay, near the Canadian border, but the “center of controversy” over salmon farming in Maine is in Blue Hill Bay, said Jon Lewis, DMR’s aquaculture coordinator. Blue Hill Bay is a popular vacation area and summer residence just west of Mount Desert Island in the southern range of Maine’s salmon farming country.

Erick Swanson, owner of Acadia Aquaculture Inc., who runs a farm off Hardwood Island, provided the most recent spark to the debate over the impacts of salmon farming in the Bay last year when he proposed a second farm site off Long Island. The Friends of Blue Hill Bay, a non-profit group with some 200 contributing members, rallied in opposition. The Friends had been anticipating more aquaculture proposals since the summer of 1999, when they celebrated DMR’s rejection of an application by Atlantic Salmon of Maine to lease 42 acres on the Bay.

Relying on a $35,000 study they commissioned on the physical oceanography of the Bay, the Friends called Swanson’s proposed site inappropriate. Based on the assessments of currents in the Bay, the Friends argued that pollution from pens would not be flushed out to sea fast enough. In Cobscook Bay, the tide can flush pollutants out in a day or two, but in Blue Hill Bay, the residence time for pollutants may be as high as several months, said Don Eley, spokesman for the Friends.

Nevertheless, DMR approved Swanson’s farm. In response, the Friends have filed a letter of intent to sue Swanson for operating his Hardwood Island farm without a federal discharge permit thereby failing to comply with the federal Clean Water Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency for allowing Swanson to operate with a state discharge permit. Subsequently, Swanson must wait for the EPA to issue him a National Pollution Discharge Elimination permit, which is pending, before raising fish on his new site.

Friends of Blue Hill Bay have filed a letter of intent to sue Erick Swanson, owner of Acadia Aquaculture Inc., for operating his salmon farm, above, without a federal discharge permit. Photo courtesy of Erick Swanson

Eley said the Friends of Blue Hill Bay is not opposed to aquaculture, but they want the state and aquaculture industry to take more parameters into consideration when siting farms and to conduct more stringent environmental impact monitoring at existing farms. Salmon farming is the most intrusive type of aquaculture because of the size of the pens, noise and daily boat traffic that ser-vices the farm, Eley said.

“As a group, it’s our feeling that salmon aquaculture has a potential to have a negative impact on the environment because of the increased nutrient loading and practices of using pesticides to control sea lice,” he said.

“What we’re looking for is responsible use of the resource,” he added. “The state has a very limited litmus test that they use for placing sites.”

“Nonsense,” said Swanson, who maintains that the state and industry are doing more research and environmental impact monitoring than the Friends realize.

Chris Heinig, president of MER Assessment Corporation, whose services have been retained by Swanson, said the industry spends roughly $120,000 to $170,000 per year on environmental monitoring research. These funds come from a tax placed on salmon farm production.

Under DMR’s Finfish Aquaculture Monitoring Program, the state monitors all farms once a year, more often if evidence of environmental impact is noticed. DMR takes underwater video recordings to inspect conditions beneath and near cages, and sediment samples to check for changes in the state of flora and fauna and conducts water quality testing.

John Sowles of DMR has also been testing Bay water for increased levels of phytoplankton, an indicator of nutrient loading. Swanson provided boats and crew for the studies. If a water quality problem were discovered in the Bay, salmon farms would be only one potential source of the problem, Sowles said. Other dischargers into the Bay, like sewage plants and agricultural operations, would have to be considered as well.

The state does not require aquaculture applicants to take the rate of current flow into consideration when choosing sites, however. Both Heinig and Sowles agree that as the industry expands westward from Blue Hill Bay into the sheltered nooks of Maine’s coast that have slower currents, the state may have to take residence times of pollutants into consideration, perhaps involving universities in studies.

According to Heinig, salmon farmers have as much interest in keeping Maine waters clean as the environmentalists who oppose them. Faced with the limitations on the industry, “it would be wholly irresponsible and negligent on the part of the company operators, to allow a site to get so badly degraded that it begins to affect their own production, because they literally have nowhere else to go,” he said.

Nevertheless, Eley and the Friends believe that the state needs to be a better overseer of the salmon farming industry. The state approves farms and waits to see what happens to the environment, Eley said. “Our contention is, that’s not good enough. We want to make sure that farms be sited where they are most appropriate to be sited.”