A digital rendering of the proposed American Aquafarms salmon farm in Frenchman Bay. The company is appealing a decision by the state to terminate its lease application for the site.  Courtesy of American Aquafarms via the Ellsworth American

The company behind a controversial plan to build an industrial-scale salmon farm in Frenchman Bay is taking its case to court after the Maine Department of Marine Resources terminated its lease application last month.

American Aquafarms filed a complaint against the state in Cumberland County Superior Court last week. The Portland company, funded by Norwegian investors, proposed raising 66 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually at two closed, 15-pen sites in Frenchman Bay, between Bar Harbor and Gouldsboro, with each pen encompassing 60 acres. The company also proposed operating a fish processing plant in Gouldsboro.

In its complaint, American Aquafarms alleges that the department’s decision was not supported by evidence. It also claims that the department spoke with a third party without its knowledge just days before the decision, violating American Aquafarms’ right to due process. 

The state’s marine regulatory body terminated the application April 19. There were two major issues with it, said Jeff Nichols, department spokesperson. 

First, the company failed to find a proper source for its fish eggs, according to Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the department. The hatchery listed in the application, AquaBounty in Newfoundland, is not on Maine’s list of qualified egg sources.

American Aquafarms also failed to show that the proposed hatchery satisfied genetic requirements mandated by state law, Keliher said.

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“They were unable to provide the required information about fish health and genetics,” Nichols has said previously.

The department notified American Aquafarms in September that the two issues needed to be addressed, he said.

After giving the company eight months to come up with an acceptable solution, Keliher decided to terminate the lease application, which would have granted the company permission to raise salmon at the two sites for 20 years.

American Aquafarms, though, argues that the March 25 deadline set by the department was arbitrary. The company proved it was making a good faith effort to comply, but the department refused to extend the deadline, American Aquafarms said in the complaint.

The company also claims that it identified the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Cold Water Marine Agricultural Center in Franklin as an alternate egg source in the event that testing data from AquaBounty couldn’t meet the department’s requirements. But the department said the USDA eggs did not qualify “because the department arbitrarily, and without seeking a response from (American Aquafarms), decided that the USDA could not provide enough eggs.”

American Aquafarms also alleges that the department spoke with USDA personnel after the company had submitted the necessary testing information. This conversation allegedly played a role in the department’s decision to cancel the application.

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American Aquafarms said in its complaint that the company did not know the conversation would take place, did not have an opportunity to be there and therefore did not have the opportunity to question, rebut or otherwise address any of the information presented. The conversation, according to the company, violated its right to due process.

The department stands behind its decision to terminate the application, Nichols said in a statement Friday.

“That decision was based in regulation and law designed to protect the marine environment,” he said. “American Aquafarms’ failure to demonstrate that its proposed source of salmon could meet criteria in regulation for a ‘Qualified Source Hatchery’ and to provide documentation demonstrating that the proposed source of salmon could meet genetic requirements in (state law) was a major omission that compelled our decision.”

The company can reapply for the leases, but the process could take two or three years.

The proposed salmon farm has been the subject of local ire since it was first proposed in 2020.

Local lobster harvesters were concerned that the farm would compromise valuable fishing grounds, while environmental groups feared there would be negative impacts on the local ecosystem. Others worried that putting an industrialized aquaculture operation at the foot of Acadia National Park could harm tourism.

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Last summer, a group called the Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation organized a protest off the coast of Bar Harbor involving more than 125 lobster boats and pleasure craft. The group has been vocally opposed to the project since the start. Organizers said the “Save the Bay” flotilla demonstrated the depth of opposition to the salmon farm.

Other groups have also expressed opposition to the project.

In March, Friends of Schoodic Peninsula presented a petition signed by 100 local fishermen to the Gouldsboro Board of Selectmen. The fishermen said they oppose the fish farm because it would take away valuable fishing grounds for lobster, scallops and shrimp; potentially cause water pollution, cause navigational conflicts and spread harmful diseases to other fish species.

The Bar Harbor Town Council was presented with a similar petition signed by 26 lobstermen last year.

Ocean conservation group Oceana said that if approved, the project would bring not only water pollution but air, noise and light pollution, effectively turning a scenic area into an industrial site.

“This lawsuit reveals the extent of American Aquafarms’ determination to pollute Frenchman Bay with 4.1 billion gallons per day of untreated wastewater from their ill-conceived monster fish farm in Hancock County,” said Oceana Campaign Director Matt Dundas. “Despite the opposition of two-thirds of Hancock County voters and the rejection of their permit by Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, American Aquafarms is apparently doubling their efforts to build a 66-million-pound-per-year – the largest ocean-pen salmon farm in North America – less than 2,000 feet from the shores of Acadia National Park.”

American Aquafarms did not respond to an interview request Friday.