American Aquafarms files appeal of Maine salmon farm permit-denial

American Aquafarms Founder Mikael Rønes holds an image depicting a part of the company's planned project.

American Aquafarms has filed a petition for a review of the Maine Department of Maine Resources’ (DMR) rejection of its application for a large salmon aquaculture facility in the waters of Frenchmans Bay, off the coast of Gouldsboro, Maine, U.S.A.

On 20 April, 2022, the Maine DMR denied the company’s application for two leases in the bay, citing a lack of an approved egg source for its salmon. American Aquafarms had hoped to grow up to 30,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon in closed net-pens by 2024.

American Aquafarms' petition, filed on 19 May in Maine's Cumberland County Superior Court, requests a review of DMR’s decision. The company planned to use eggs from Maynard, Massachusetts-U.S.A. based AquaBounty – a source the Maine DMR claimed didn’t meet the state’s requirements.

The refusal to continue the lease process “constitutes an arbitrary and capricious action which was unsupported by the evidence before the department,” according to the petition, which was acquired by SeafoodSource. The filing also claims that communication by Maine DMR with a third party five days before its final decision on the lease “was a violation of [American Aquafarms'] right to due process as guaranteed by both the U.S. and Maine constitutions.”

The court documents say that American Aquafarms first heard the department didn’t consider AquaBounty a “qualified hatchery” in September 2021, and that a review of AquaBounty would be required prior to any further action. The company then sent a letter to the department that initiated the review, which required the company to send along AquaBounty’s testing protocol along with “genetic information showing that the salmon did not originate in Iceland or Europe.”

According to the court documents, it became clear that while AquaBounty’s testing schedule and protocols look for similar pathogens as those required by the Maine DMR, they do not line up exactly with the schedules described in the Maine DMR’s regulations. As the company “worked to reconcile the data,” it received a second letter from the DMR indicating that if the company did not comply with new requirements by a “newly imposed deadline of 25 March, 2022,” the department would terminate the lease application.

Following up on that deadline, American Aquafarms informed the DMR that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Cold-Water Agricultural Center would be used as an alternate egg source in the event testing data from AquaBounty could not be coordinated to Maine DMR’s satisfaction.

“The eggs that the USDA would supply to [American Aquafarms] are produced in Maine, and therefore would not be subject to ... review,” the appeal states.

The company requested an extension of the “arbitrarily imposed” deadline of 25 March – a request that the department refused. The Maine DMR also told AAF, according to the filing, that the company could “only receive eggs from the USDA ‘if certain conditions are met.’”

“The department did not specify which conditions it found to be unacceptable,” the filing states.

The company is claiming that Maine DMR “had no factual basis before it to support the imposition of this four-month timeline,” and that it failed to give the company any opportunity to respond to its objections.

American Aquafarms Company Spokesman Thomas Brennan told MainePublic the appeal is intended to “keep the permit application alive.”

“We did this as a last resort. We are trying very much trying to work within the process, we thought we met all the requirements," Brennan said.

A Maine DMR spokesperson, however, told SeafoodSource the department stands by its decision.

“That decision was based in regulation and law designed to protect the marine environment. 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 law (§6071(4)) was a major omission that compelled our decision,” the spokesperson said.

The appeal effort comes amid increasing opposition by communities near the proposed site of the aquaculture project. Voters in Hancock, Maine, voted unanimously at an annual town meeting on 10 May to intervene in permitting on the salmon project.

“The people of Hancock clearly understand the risks to this community and the people who live and work around the bay,” Frenchman Bay United Board Member Ted O’Meara said in a press release. Frenchman Bay United is one of multiple local organizations that have vocally opposed the project.

Just before the town meeting vote, a poll of Hancock County, Maine residents by environmental non-governmental organization Oceana found 66 percent of voters in the county – where the project would be located – opposed the project.

“This shows that Mainers, especially those in Hancock County, don’t want this monster fish farm to move forward,” Oceana Campaign Director Matt Dundas said in a release. “While it’s great news that this proposal is stalled, the fight to save Frenchman Bay is far from over.”  

In a 22 April statement, AquaBounty President and CEO Sylvia Wulf clarified her company’s role in the American Aquafarms' project and the status of her company’s salmon eggs.

“AquaBounty has been in discussions with American Aquafarms about becoming an approved supplier to provide them with non-genetically engineered Atlantic salmon eggs from our facility in Rollo Bay, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Representatives for American Aquafarms requested specific information and data from AquaBounty, which we have provided. We did not receive requests for any additional information,” Wulf said. “AquaBounty has rigorous quality control and quality assurance procedures in place to confirm the genotype of every commercial batch of eggs shipped from our hatcheries. We verify the genotype and ploidy of genetically engineered ‘GE’ eggs shipped to AquaBounty farms using procedures approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and we verify that no GE eggs are present in any shipment of non-GE eggs, using established molecular biological methods. The same egg [quality control] procedure would be used to verify the absence of GE eggs in batches used by AquaBounty to produce non-GE fry or smolts for our customers. Additionally, AquaBounty does not produce non-GE and GE eggs at the same time in a single facility.”

Photo courtesy of American Aquafarms


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