GOULDSBORO — Selectmen unanimously voted last week to request that American Aquafarms finance an independent environmental review to determine the impact on the town of its proposed $330 million venture to raise and process 66 million pounds of salmon annually in Frenchman Bay. The Norwegian-backed company’s operation would be based at the closed Maine Fair Trade complex in Prospect Harbor.
At their July 22 meeting, where Friends of Schoodic Peninsula had requested to speak, selectmen took the action after hearing from roughly 90 citizens in person and via Zoom. The initiative for an independent environmental assessment, which falls under the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, came from the audience, who largely included seasonal and year-round Gouldsboro residents and local fishermen. Many of them had signed a 92-signature letter registering their opposition to American Aquafarms’ entire project in Gouldsboro and Frenchman Bay.
“It is our opinion that this would be a disaster for the environment (on land, sea and air), the vital, local lobstering business, other fishing and small aquaculture businesses, residents and the health of the tourist trade, which supports thousands of local workers,” the letter to the selectmen reads.
Gouldsboro interim Town Manager Eve Wilkinson offered to assist the project’s opponents in possibly putting a referendum question to voters about American Aquafarms’ project. Company officials say the project would create 60 full-time, salaried jobs ranging widely in skill sets from boat captains to electronic system technicians. Her offer to spell out the referendum process, requiring a written petition with signatures totaling at least 10 percent of votes cast in town in the last gubernatorial election, came in response to a citizen’s suggestion of a referendum vote to truly gauge local support for and opposition to the proposed project.
“Get off the sidelines and speak for us,” Thomas Mckeag told selectmen. “I am asking you guys if you are for or against it.”
Confronted, Gouldsboro’s five selectmen, Dana Rice, Robert Harmon, Ernie West, Wally Moore and Danny Mitchell Jr., one by one, responded. Mitchell opposes the project, saying the industrial-size operation “is not what we want for our community.” West, Moore and Harmon concurred that they don’t favor American Aquafarms, per se. They want a commercial venture to take over the Maine Fair Trade facility and produce jobs that are compatible with the town, where fisheries largely have driven the economy for more than a century.
“I am not specifically in favor of American Aquafarms. I am in favor of the factory [Maine Fair Trade] being productive and supplying jobs,” Harmon told the crowd. “I’d like to see jobs created and something produced for the town.”
Since last fall, Rice, the board’s chairman, has openly supported the Norwegians’ project and even is featured in American Aquafarms’ “Bringing Maine’s Marine Heritage” video on the company’s Facebook page. In the film, he recalls the collapse of Maine’s herring fishery that once boasted 50 canneries from Lubec to Portland. Prospect Harbor’s sardine cannery was the last to close in 2010, leaving 133 people out of work.
From the outset, Rice has seen American Aquafarms as a potential commercial venture to fill the void left by Maine Fair Trade. Having served as selectman for decades, the lobster dealer says he’s concerned about the working population’s future and loss of their traditional way of life deriving their livelihood from the sea.
Rice said he has “confidence” in the state and federal regulatory agencies’ scrutiny and assessment of the industrial-size salmon farm and the proposed sites’ potential impact on the marine environment and lobster, scallop and shrimp fisheries.
Local lobstermen, who fish the grounds where the salmon farm is proposed, are not confident the fish farm will not destroy their livelihood.
“We are not allowed to use salmon as bait and they want to throw it in the backyard? Really?” declared South Gouldsboro fishermen Roy Whalen Sr. Whalen and his son Roy Jr. and daughter Hannah also fish for scallops and halibut.
“It’s very scary. I want to teach my kids someday to fish,” Hannah Whalen told selectmen. “I don’t think we will be able to.”