GOULDSBORO — When organized fish farming first came to Maine in the 1970s, the first crops were shellfish — primarily blue mussels and oysters — and the “sea farms” were pretty much limited geographically to the Damariscotta River and some of the more sheltered inlets on Vinalhaven.
By the early ’80s, aquaculture had spread eastward, and rearing Atlantic salmon in floating pens had become big business. From an estimated 20 metric tons (about 44,000 pounds) in 1984, production soared to a peak of more than 36 million pounds in 2000. That total was produced by seven different companies operating about a dozen active lease sites.
For a while, a couple of those sites, operated by the Penobscot Salmon Co., were in Frenchman Bay near Preble Island.
Early in the 1990s, bitter winter weather and a “superchill” event that killed thousands of fish effectively put paid to salmon farming in Frenchman Bay, although the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research — built on the foundations of a failed commercial salmon hatchery on Taunton Bay — is a reminder that it once existed nearby.
While the Maine salmon industry consolidated to just one operator — the Canadian Cooke Aquaculture Co. — and withdrew Downeast, other species came to the fore. Now, in addition to Atlantic salmon, Maine seafarmers grow millions of oysters, blue mussels and clams and production of other species, such as sea scallops and seaweed, is beginning to expand.
Next month, the Department of Marine Resources will hold a public hearing on an application for a 20-acre aquaculture lease to grow seaweed on a site west of Stave Island in Frenchman Bay that was approved for growing cod.
According to a notice from DMR, Springtide Seaweed, LLC has applied for a 20-acre, 10-year aquaculture lease for the suspended culture of “sugar kelp, skinny kelp, horsetail/fingered kelp, dulse, Irish moss and nori/laver.” It is the same site that Great Bay Aquaculture of Maine leased in 2012 with an eye to growing cod for sale on the live market throughout the Northeast.
In 2009, the company joined forces with Sorrento fisherman James West to establish a 35-acre cod farm off Preble Island, about 1.9 miles north of the Stave Island site, in the same location that was once home to the defunct Penobscot Salmon Co. farm.
Just a year after receiving approval from DMR, the company shuttered its cod farming operations, although West continued some mussel farming.
“The Preble farm was successful,” Jon Lewis, director of DMR’s aquaculture division, said in an email, “but Stave was never used for cod — it sat unused. It was relinquished by Great Bay and Sarah Redmond is now trying to pick up the same footprint for seaweed.”
That may well be a sign of the times. According to the DMR, there are currently about 175 Limited Purpose Aquaculture sites in Maine waters with permits that allow for the cultivation of kelp or other seaweed species.
The DMR public hearing for the application by Springtide Seaweed LLC is currently scheduled for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at the Gouldsboro Municipal Building in Prospect Harbor.