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Salmon 'die-off' incident raises concerns about the state's future in large-scale aquaculture

Advocacy groups and lobstermen say this event, which resulted in 100,000 salmon mortalities at a Black Island farm, could be a sign of what's to come.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Phil Corson is no stranger to the ocean. His father and grandfather were fishermen and worked the Frenchman Bay waters off the coast of Bar Harbor for decades. For 45 years, he's continued that family tradition, but recently, the waters have been rough.

“We’re definitely getting a lot thrown at us right now," he said. 

New fishing restrictions are not the only thing catching Corson's attention. Last month a massive salmon die-off at a Cooke Aquaculture farm off Black Island raised concerns with Corson.

“[Dead fish] kills everything on the bottom of the ocean: lobsters, fish, whatnot," he added.

Advocacy groups like Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage (PMFH) have more questions than answers.

“What caused the die-off, had it impacted the environment underneath the net pens?" Executive Director Crystal Canney asked. “These are all questions the [Department of Marine Resources] owes an answer to, to not only the fishermen but the lobstermen in the area.”

The group sent a list of questions related to the die-off to the DMR this week. A spokesperson from the Department said it was made aware of the die-off on August 23.

According to emails obtained by a PMFH Freedom of Access Act request, Cooke Aquaculture knew of the die-off on August 16. According to those messages, the state's Department of Environmental Protection wasn't notified until August 27.

Credit: PMFH

A spokesperson for Cooke said, "A fish health incident is not a violation of a Department of Environmental Protection permit, but rather an unfortunate event which can happen naturally in aquaculture farming from time to time."

For that reason, the Canadian-based company notified the DMR before other agencies. The spokesperson added the mortalities from the die-off "were a result of uncommonly low oxygen levels in the cages."

The DMR concluded the event was indeed an issue of low oxygen in the pens which is not a compliance issue.

Canney said she still wants answers to learn more about the environmental impacts this could have caused. She added an incident like this is why the state should "take a breath" when it comes to approving large-scale aquaculture leases.

“That is just a precursor of what could happen to industrial-scale aquaculture," she said. 

Credit: NCM

The proposed project on her and Corson's minds is American Aquafarm's plan to build a salmon farm facility on Frenchman Bay. 

“Why our bay? It’s really not big enough for all of that," Corson asked. 

He added that if the project does come online, the fishing territory in the bay would have to be adjusted to account for the boats the aquafarm company would have to use to transport salmon, fuel, and supplied to the facility.

Canney added the state is welcoming these types of projects to come to the coast because of cheap lease costs.

“For $100 you can lease an acre on the ocean," she said. “You can lease up to a thousand acres, you can hold those leases for up to 20 years and you can transfer those leases without a public hearing.”

Although Canney is against these large-scale projects, she's not against aquaculture in general. 

“It’s really about density and size and what it will do to the water," she added.

American Aquafarms' permitting process is still at the state level so it will still be time if that project gets approved.