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Maine Voices: Regulators should question large-scale aquaculture

With no track record for technologies applied at proposed scale, officials are left trusting investor’s promises.

Maine is witnessing multiple plans for large aquaculture projects including two new sites planned for Frenchman Bay, in addition to those in Belfast, Bucksport and Jonesport. For some, the possibility of jobs and tax revenue from industrial-sized aquaculture is appealing. The success of these plans is dependent however upon new complex technologies. Maine is becoming positioned to be the proving grounds for these new technologies. Does Maine’s existing permitting process help determine what’s best for the state and the environment? Is this process explainable to concerned citizens and, in the case of Frenchman Bay, to the millions of visitors to Acadia National Park?

Our state regulators are underfunded and standards for permits leave significant room for argument. There are two approaches for regulators; one questions if this is the “best practical treatment,” and takes into account alternatives to complex emerging technologies such as “closed pen” and “partially closed recirculating aquaculture systems.” Since these technologies are not proven at the sizes proposed in Maine, regulators must accept investor promises. Other technologies with better claims of environmental protection exist.

Another tool regulators can use is water quality based standards. Maine’s weak standards to protect marine waters currently include a temperature regulation where the exact temperatures before and after construction are uncertain and difficult-to-verify parameters such as “anti-degradation” and “assimilation” policies. Evaluating these predictions depends on high-tech computer modeling, where results often vary by factors of two, and they need verification to be trusted. The industry claims they can build some of the largest-in-the-world fish factories and meet state guidelines, but few guidelines exist and the only recourse is fines if the technologies fail to succeed. The health of the Gulf of Maine is at stake.

If the process approved by Maine regulators for Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast is any example, Mainers should be asking a lot more questions about available and proven technologies. Recently acquired Freedom of Access Act documents from Gov. Mills’ office, requested by Belfast Journalist Lawrence Reichard, illustrate strong corporate lobbying on Nordic’s behalf and government contacts with regulators. Maine environmental regulators did not review competing technologies that offer minimal pollution and relied on unverified computer modeling. One example of weakness in the regulatory process is the inability to verify predictions of how ocean currents affect where pollutants will flow. This determination should happen before the discharge of pollutants takes place. Instead, Maine has asked Nordic to monitor the dispersion of added dye to the effluent after construction and AFTER operating at full capacity.

Large aquaculture projects are occurring in other states that are demanding technology that reduces environmental risks. West Coast Salmon’s plan for a 50,000 metric tons per year land-based salmon farm in the Nevada desert uses a minimal liquid discharge system. I have communicated with several at West Coast Salmon’s technology provider, Aquamaof and described Nordic Aquafarms’s plan to raise 33,000 metric tons per year of fish while creating 7.7 million gallons per day of liquid waste containing 1,600 lbs. of nitrogen, using enormous amounts of groundwater, and requiring approximately 28 megawatts of electricity from the region’s grid.

What would West Coast Salmon’s footprint be for the same size as Nordic’s production? Their technology suggests that it would produce one tenth of the wastewater discharge with roughly one sixteenth of the nitrogen at one half the concentration, and use half the amount of groundwater while requiring less power. They also thought that Nordic’s estimated construction costs were high. West Coast Salmon is using technology that is currently producing fish successfully at some 50 sites around the world. We have not seen evidence of Nordic’s successful commercial salmon production and certainly nothing near the size of the Belfast proposed plan.

Throughout the permitting process, Upstream Watch has encouraged Maine’s regulators to consider other examples of proven technologies such as minimal liquid and zero discharge. Why would we want to unnecessarily use excessive groundwater and add pollutants to our coastline? Why bend our environmental standards at this crucial time when better systems already exist.