On the Fourth of July, many a Maine family once sat down to a traditional meal of fresh salmon, garden peas, and new potatoes dug from the warm earth. A century ago, Maine salmon were known around the world as being among the best of seafoods.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, both shores of Penobscot Bay bristled with pound nets and weirs, set out to trap adult salmon as they migrated upriver from the frigid Atlantic waters around Labrador and Greenland. Hundreds of individual fishermen operated the nets as part of a seasonal, rural way of life that also included farming and wood-cutting. Upriver, near Bangor, fly-fishermen cast for salmon, keeping the fish to eat at home or selling them to local markets. Indeed, “Penobscot River Salmon” became a trade name for Atlantic salmon up and down the East Coast, appearing in Fannie Farmer’s cookbook and on fine dining menus in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
A prized food fish speared from fast currents, eaten fresh, and smoked and dried for year-round consumption, salmon were—and are—important to the survival of the Wabanaki people. With heart-healthy fatty acids and Vitamin D, salmon is among the healthiest sources of protein. Penobscot River salmon fed local communities, and local residents sustained salmon by promoting fish passage and clean water.
That was then.
Now, Maine’s wild, sea-run Atlantic salmon are on the endangered species list, one of nearly 1,500 threatened and endangered animals throughout the U.S. The Penobscot River remains home to the largest run of wild Salmo salar in America, although fishing for sea-run salmon has been prohibited for decades. Many organizations, including NOAA, are working to restore the severely depleted wild runs, with a goal of recovering self-sustaining populations.
A renewed fishery remains a distant dream. And yet, Atlantic salmon is ubiquitous in supermarkets and on menus today. Why? Private companies farm the species around the world, in Norway, Chile, Canada, and even eastern Maine.
Since commercial salmon farming began in the 1980s, culture technology and shipping efficiency improved and competition increased, creating an abundant supply of affordable salmon, and new markets developed. The demand for salmon has been strong ever since: salmon consistently ranks among the top three most popular seafoods in America (shrimp and tuna being the others), and two-thirds of it is imported, farmed Atlantic salmon. There is also a steady supply of sustainably-caught wild Pacific salmon coming out of Alaska, with much of it being exported out of the U.S.
The salmon aquaculture industry has worked hard to overcome real and perceived problems with chemical contamination, the amount of wild fish used in feed (because salmon eat other fish), genetic modification of fish, escaped fish, and pollution of ocean waters, with varying success.
Today, salmon from farms currently operated by Cooke Aquaculture in the coastal waters of eastern Maine are ranked as a yellow “good alternative” choice by Monterey Bay Aquarium. The ranking was attributed to “stringent operating permit mandates” that have prevented fish from escaping farms.
Despite progress by Cooke and other participants in the marine salmon farming industry to improve sustainability and efficiency, research and development efforts have expanded to explore strategies to raise salmon on land. With enclosed buildings, the risk of escape and other problems associated with an uncontrolled environment can be nearly eliminated, allowing the fish to be marketed as sustainable and sold at a premium price.
And it is demand for sustainable salmon that has prompted two separate proposals for land-based salmon aquaculture production on opposite banks of Penobscot Bay, in Belfast near the mouth of the Little River (Nordic Aquafarms) and at the former Verso paper mill site in Bucksport (Whole Oceans). As two different companies proceed with plans and permit applications, nearby communities are trying to understand, define, and evaluate the implications of large-scale fish production on their waterfronts.
On both sides of the bay, residents have raised questions: How much fresh water will they use? Will discharge pollute the bay? What will the buildings look like? What chemicals are used in the process? Can the fish escape? What will the fish eat? Will the fish be free of pollutants? Who will eat the fish? Will the farm smell or be noisy? How much truck traffic will there be? How many jobs will be created? How much energy is needed? Where is the money coming from?
The proposals for Belfast and Bucksport are for land-based, recirculating aquaculture systems, or RAS, and are considered the state of the science, yet new at the scale being proposed.
The “recirculating” part is key to sustainability claims. Because it is used at least twice, water has to be clean to begin with and filtered and monitored throughout the process, and a permit will be needed for discharge to Penobscot Bay.
In the ocean or on land, feed is the biggest cost for farming fish, which is why both Nordic Aquafarms and Whole Oceans are working on feed formulas that reduce the amount of wild fish content and will be compatible with a recirculating system. Compared to other animals, salmon are second only to chicken in their efficiency of converting food to protein and calories.
The facilities also will need a Title 50 import permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the salmon eggs. Neither company has determined where they will obtain eggs; existing wild Atlantic salmon hatcheries have none to spare, and because the plants are on land they do not have the same requirements as marine pens to use North American strains of salmon. The federal agency will require testing and biosecurity measures, and monitoring for fish health and disease.
WAITING FOR APPLICATIONS
Many questions about the scope and details of the proposals will remain unanswered until the companies submit permit applications. It has become clearer that the developers chose the Penobscot Bay area in part because of its proximity to markets, the abundant clean water, and the need for money in towns that have experienced the departure of other industries: paper, poultry, sardines, and credit card companies.
There is excitement about redevelopment of old industrial sites, new models for natural resource-based businesses, and new uses for existing infrastructure. At the same time, Maine communities have grown weary and perhaps wary of reacting to large industrial development ideas that claim to single-handedly save their town or region, especially projects that affect natural resources. And, as the two salmon aquaculture proposals are revealing, communities want meaningful discussion about how residents value local land and water, where their food comes from, what kind of economic activity they want and need.
But these are long, big conversations when time is short and budgets are small.
And so people will continue to scrutinize and argue about commercial salmon farms and food security details in hearing rooms and at kitchen tables and along the waterfront of the Penobscot, a river cleaner and full of more fish than at any time in the last hundred years. The river and bay continue to be the focus of efforts to restore salmon and other sea-run fish, as well as marine food fish like cod, haddock, and flounder.
Fisheries scientists don’t think the farms will affect the restoration effort, but public support remains an important factor in success. Stories of wild salmon and the related cultural and culinary heritage of seafood have a place in the discussion about new development proposals from Whole Oceans and Nordic Aquafarms, both of which promise to make the Penobscot River and Bay region once again world famous for salmon.
Catherine Schmitt is communications director for the Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine and the author of The President’s Salmon: Restoring the King of Fish and its Home Waters.