Finfish Aquaculture: Weighing In - by Minot Weld, Sierra Club Maine Volunteer

By: Minot Weld, Sierra Club Maine Volunteer
Editorial and Content Assistance: Holly Faubel and Jim Merkel

In recent years there has been an unprecedented push to establish industrial finfish aquaculture facilities in Maine, with five proposals currently working their way through the permitting process. These projects are expensive, harmful to the environment and the ecosystem, and not in line with the state’s climate goals. Better alternatives exist, so promoting massive, polluting, carbon intensive facilities is the wrong way to go.

Total investment for these projects will exceed $1.2 billion (1). Four of the facilities will raise Atlantic Salmon with a total projected annual output of 210 million pounds (2) (this is over five times the amount produced in the entire country in 2017, the most recent year for which production figures are available) (3). The fifth facility will grow kingfish, non-native to Maine.

Millions of gallons of effluent, containing nitrogen, phosphorus (4), fish odors and, potentially, pathogens and parasites will be pumped into coastal waters from Belfast to Jonesport daily. This will imperil already fragile marine ecosystems, impacting the lobster fishery (5) and the restoration of wild fish runs.

Four of the operations, if successfully permitted, will be on land. Fish will be raised in tanks, employing Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) technology. RAS’s were originally designed to be zero effluent, making them water efficient and able to be located inland, closer to market. The systems proposed here in Maine are designed to be ‘partially open,’ requiring coastal or riverside location for effluent disposal. This will include waste from unvaccinated kingfish (6), known to harbor pathogens injurious to wild fish (7).

The fifth facility, to be located on Frenchman Bay, off of Bar Harbor and Gouldsboro, will use largely experimental, ‘partially open’ closed-pen technology on a scale never before attempted (8). Water will be pumped from the depths of the bay at a rate of 180 cubic feet per second (calculated at four billion gallons per day) (9) and the ‘Partially filtered’ water will be discharged directly back into the bay.

These five fish facilities will have massive carbon footprints (10). Both RAS and closed pen systems require significant energy for constant pumping. Additional carbon emissions will be generated in storage and transport, and the embodied carbon in facilities measured in football field equivalent is enormous. It is particularly ironic that the state is championing this development while at the same time claiming climate leadership.

These (mostly foreign) investor-driven projects are initiating yet another iteration of the extraction industry in Maine. They have hired lawyers and national consultants who have carefully coached them in public presentations. They claim impressive job creation as well as direct and secondary economic benefit. The state is rolling out the red carpet (11) and even bending rules, or attempting to (12), to help get this done.

Climate and environment-friendly alternatives exist. Bluetech Systems (13), for instance, has developed a scalable, economically viable, zero-effluent RAS technology. This is what the state should be supporting. Scalable, carbon neutral, zero-effluent, zero chemical systems, integrating fish and greenhouse production, have been proven profitable (14). Lower cost, lower barrier to entry systems would enhance the vitality of working waterfronts.
Maine’s business development efforts should be brought into line with its climate goals. Viable climate and environment alternatives exist. This should be the minimum standard.


(1) Nordic @ $500 millionKingfish @ $110 millionAmerican Aquafarms @ $250 million, Whole Oceans @ $250 million, Aquabanq @100 million (extrapolated. Full production will equal ½ of Whole Oceans output)
(2) Nordic @ 77.7 million pounds per yearAmerican Aquafarms @ 30,000 MT = 66 million pounda (1 metric tonne = 2,204.6 pounds)Aquabanq @ 10,000 MT = 22 million pounds
(3) 36.4 million pounds produced in 2017; 209.7 / 36.4 = 5.76
(4) Each effluent discharge permit will list N & K content
(8) ‘Partially open’ closed-pen technology 
(9) 2 leases x 15 pens each x 136.9 million gallons per day each 
(10) Carbon footprints 
(11) Maine DECD Letter 
(12) “Governor’s Bill” LD 1473
(14) Professor Michael Ben Timmons has such a system under development in Florida. Maine has an example that approached this ideal.