Aquaculture

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Only one US state has a viable salmon farming industry. Will it last?

America has precious few aquaculture industry success stories, but Maine is one of them. As the sector expands can it fend off its opponents?

Cooke Aquaculture, one of the world's largest aquaculture companies, has for nearly two decades operated successful salmon farms in Maine, where it produces around 50 million pounds annually.

Its farms, located near Eastport, Maine -- a town that has been ranked as the poorest in the state by major news sites and has over 20 percent of its residents living below poverty level -- are an important source of income for local residents.

"They've been there a long time, and they've done a tremendous amount of community outreach," Sebastian Belle, executive director for the Maine Aquaculture Association, told IntraFish of Cooke's successful run. "They work closely with communities they operate in. They're a community-minded company."

Across the country, of course, the story has been different. Cooke's salmon farming operations in Washington State were upended after a massive salmon escape led to state legislators voting to phase out all Atlantic salmon farming by 2025.

In short, Maine is the last bastion of conventional US salmon farming, and the only finfish aquaculture operation of any real size and scale in the country.

All in all, the state's aquaculture industry has been a success, and is primed for even further growth, with a new generation of entrepreneurs ready to try their hand.

But as the industry has become more visible, so have the opponents. Several hours south of Cooke's operations, for example, recent aquaculture proposals, such as Nordic Aquafarm's massive land-based salmon farm in Belfast, have been met with harsh criticism from nearby residents.

NIMBYs, not NGOs

Unlike other areas that face more opposition from NGOs, aquaculture projects in Maine tend to receive more opposition if they are located in wealthier parts of the state such as Belfast or Brunswick, where residents are more concerned about how aquaculture can impact property views and values, Belle said.

The American slang for these kinds of opponents is the acronym "NIMBY," which stands for "Not In My Back Yard." Belle points to individuals such as property owner Paul Dioli, who opposes a 40-acre oyster farm proposed to be built near his home by Mere Point Oyster Co.

Dioli recently joined forces with a group of longtime Maine lobstermen in petitioning the state to put a moratorium on aquaculture leases bigger than 10 acres and create a new rule that would make state regulators consider alternate locations before approving aquaculture leases, reports the Portland Press Herald.

"His very highly paid lobbyists are trying to figure the way to take that bill and add a moratorium to it, or some acreage cap," Belle said of Dioli's petition.

Crystal Canney, a spokeswoman for Dioli and the lobstermen, contends there are several concerns beyond a project's impact to property views that have to do with Maine's aquaculture permitting process, which is overseen by Maine's Department of Marine Resources (DMR).

"We are not anti-aquaculture, not in the least," Canney told IntraFish. "We think it has a place in Maine. It could be of great economic benefit to the state. What we're objecting to is the process by which DMR reviews the regulations and the size of these leases."

The DMR approved an average of 17 new leases a year in the last five years, compared to six leases approved a year on average from 2009 to 2013, according to a review of department lease decisions conducted this March by the Portland Press Herald.

A company's ability to transfer a large aquaculture lease to an out-of-state interest is also a concern, Canney said, noting the group has seen an uptick in aquaculture leases greater than 10 acres in size over the past three years.

That's why the group is asking Maine lawmakers to create a task force to study the impact of these larger leases, she said.

"Things have changed radically in last three to four years. It wouldn't hurt to take a step back and make sure we're not selling Maine," she said.

Strong oversight

Jon Lewis, DMR's aquaculture program director, told IntraFish that given the conflicting testimony over Mere Point's potential impacts to lobster fishermen, the DMR is closely reviewing Mere Point Oyster Co's application to see if it could impact the state's $500 million (€445 million) lobster industry before giving it final approval.

He agreed with Canney that a company can hand a lease over to an out-of-state entity under Maine regulations, but the DMR also has the power to prohibit such a transfer.

"We can revoke a lease because it's being used for speculative purposes," he said. "We haven't seen that. The people who are applying want to farm a product."

There are currently between 125 and 130 aquaculture leases in the state, with 80 percent being standard leases.

A standard lease is for projects over 4 acres and up to 100 acres, and can be awarded to a company for up to 20 years. To obtain this type of lease, a company must present its business plan at a public hearing, notify anyone who lives within 1,000 feet of the operation, and require the operation follow criteria that includes it "does not reasonably interfere with fishing or other uses of the area."

Youthful alternative for an aging industry

Since 2007 the total economic impact of aquaculture has almost tripled from $50 million (€44.5 million) to $137 million (€122 million) dollars, according to a study from the University of Maine.

Aquaculture's bright future in the state is one of the reasons Belle said state's lawmakers will be unlikely to pass what he considers anti-aquaculture measures proposed by Dioli and others.

"I'm confident in the common sense of public officials who will examine these projects," he said. "I have great confidence in the citizenry of the state. They're very good at balancing economic development with environmental sustainability."

Aquaculture is a growing industry for younger workers in Maine in particular, Belle added. The average age of people working in aquaculture right now is roughly around 36 years old, he said. The average age of a commercial fishing permit holder is around 57.

"Most of our new entrants into the sector are coming from working waterfront families," he said. "Most of the people who are getting into it now are commercial fishermen or are sons and daughters of commercial fishermen."

Workers in the commercial fishing industry in Maine are also seeing the benefits of diversifying their income with aquaculture because it provides year-round work versus a seasonal income, according to DMR's Lewis.

"Between climate change, warming temperatures, ocean acidification, existing lobstermen are hedging their bets. We're seeing more lobstermen getting into aquaculture," he said.

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