GOULDSBORO — American Aquafarms has yet to reveal its exact plans, but the Norwegian-backed company appears committed to pursuing some form of seafood aquaculture in Maine after acquiring the former Maine Fair Trade Lobster processing plant last week for $3.640 million.
The company’s purchase of the Prospect Harbor facility follows state regulators’ termination of the company’s applications to raise up to 66 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually in Frenchman Bay.
In coming days, American Aquafarms Vice President Eirik Jørs says company officials will make known their response to the state decisions. The Maine departments of Marine Resources and Environmental Protection on April 20 and 21 terminated the company’s lease permit and wastewater discharge license applications. The company proposed raising salmon at two 15-pen sites near Bald Rock Ledge and Long Porcupine Island.
Jørs also says the company will make known its intent for its newly acquired 100,000 square-foot facility straddling the western shore of Prospect Harbor. Robert Blais, president of New Bedford-based Prospect Holdings LLC, sold the property to American Aquafarms on April 29, according to the Hancock County Registry of Deeds.
“American Aquafarms is currently working on how best to address the decision from Maine departments of Marine Resources [and Environmental Protection] and will provide a more comprehensive answer as soon as possible,” Jørs said April 22. “We remain committed to the process and to further the development of sustainable and environmentally friendly aquaculture in Maine.”
American Aquafarms is owned by Blue Future, a Norway-based group of aquaculture investors. They include American Aquafarms founder Mikael Rønes’ investment company, Global AS, and Amar Group, whose CEO is Bjorn Apeland, among other Norwegian investors.
Gouldsboro Select Board Chairman Dana Rice said American Aquafarms’ Project Manager Tom Brennan notified him of the purchase of the Prospect Harbor plant but did not have any details about the company’s specific plans. Rice would like a profitable marine enterprise to occupy the facility and continue Gouldsboro’s maritime tradition. Whether it’s seafood-related or boatbuilding, the longtime selectman would like the town’s working waterfront and way of life to survive.
“Whether you like it or not, American Aquafarms is a taxpayer now in the town of Gouldsboro,” Rice noted Tuesday. “And, they deserve some consideration from my point of view.”
Frenchman Bay United board member Ted O’Meara questioned American Aquafarms’ continued interest in coastal Maine when none of its investors live in or have ties to the state. Speaking for the coalition, encompassing seven Frenchman Bay towns and various groups, O’Meara sees the company’s 120-acre Frenchman Bay project as exploitation of “our waters for their own personal gain.” He said the company’s unsuitability was made apparent in its failure to furnish a qualified Atlantic salmon egg and juvenile fish supplier and adequately refute an independent marine biologist’s findings that its project would pollute Frenchman Bay.
“They have clearly demonstrated that they are not the kind of business we want here, and we hope they will get the message and leave,” O’Meara said. “Until they do, we will continue to fight this project and to work for changes that will prevent others like it.”
Bob Blais is the CEO of East Coast Seafood Group, of which Maine Fair Trade Lobster and Garbo Lobster were affiliates, before the New Bedford, Mass.-based parent company ceased processing lobster in Hancock County. At one time, Maine Fair Trade Lobster figured among Hancock County’s top 10 employers, employing 150 workers and annually processing over 9 million pounds of lobster in 2015. At the time, company officials said they had the capacity to process as much as 30 million pounds and aimed to boost their workforce. But an insufficient and inconsistent labor pool was a major factor in the Prospect Harbor company’s closure in 2020.
Blais, who took over as East Coast Seafood Group’s CEO last year, says Maine Fair Trade’s lobster-processing — dismembering the crustaceans and picking out meat — was labor-intensive. All the company’s seafood processing — largely lobster and scallops — is now done in Lakeville and New Bedford, Mass.
“We had real problems with worker retention,” Blais explained of the Prospect Harbor facility. “To get 120 people in there, we probably went through twice as many [in a year].”
American Aquafarms’ purchase of the Maine Fair Trade Lobster facility occurred the day after the Gouldsboro Select Board’s unanimous April 28 vote to extend the town’s moratorium on 10-acre-plus finfish aquaculture development for another six months. During that period, the review or issuance of building, plumbing or any other municipal permits related to 10-acre-plus finfish farming is prohibited.
First imposed Nov. 15, 2021, the moratorium’s extension will allow the Planning Board and the town’s attorney, Tim Pease, to continue refining a finfish aquaculture licensing ordinance as well as the existing land use, site plan and shoreland ordinances in order to better control large-scale aquaculture activity in town. Any new ordinance or proposed amendments to existing ordinances would require a public hearing and town meeting vote.
In an April 21 letter, DMR Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson already weighed in on Gouldsboro’s draft aquaculture ordinance, asserting that state statute (Title 12, 6072 (1) gives the state agency sole authority over proposed leases in coastal waters.
The DMR deputy commissioner noted that Maine municipalities have limited authority in the Maine coast’s intertidal zone. Furthermore, Mendelson said state law would supersede any Maine municipality’s aquaculture licensing program and questioned a preliminary draft submitted to Gouldsboro selectmen for their review on April 14.
“We believe our existing process is robust and provides adequate opportunity for municipal engagement, as well as public participation, to ensure appropriate protection of existing uses,” the DMR deputy commissioner said.