Jonesport fish farm holds (another) public meeting; Moosebeckers split on support for Kingfish

Machias Valley News Observer
Nancy Beal

By rough count, January 17 was the sixth time that principals from Kingfish Maine, a Dutch-owned company that seeks to replicate its Netherlands yellowtail operation with a land-based fish farm in Jonesport, had faced the public to explain their operation. It was held in the firehouse, a cavernous building where the 60-or-so who came to listen and speak could sit socially distanced in the second winter of Covid 19.

The meeting was called by Kingfish and operation managers Meagan and Tom Sorby had saturated Beals and Jonesport with a paper they titled “Our Commitment to Jonesport and Invitation to Meet January 17th.” The Sorbys hoped to be met with more of the support they had enjoyed since announcing, in late 2019, their intent to pump $110 million into a land-based fish farm on Chandler Bay where they hoped to produce 13 million pounds of fish.

Instead, they got a mixed reception. Opposition that surfaced late last year was echoed in remarks from fishermen, environmentalists, and retirees. Support came from those who cared more about the area’s schools and financial future. A straw vote on the project toward the end of the 90-minute meeting was indecisive: nearly as many people declined to vote as did those who raised their hands and gave a slight “yes” to the project.

The project explained

Meagan Sorby ran the meeting. She began with a brief description of what Kingfish hoped to do on the 94-acre property, known as Dungarvin, north of the town’s largest cemetery. She ticked off the various licenses the company had obtained from a variety of state and federal permitting agencies and immediately pivoted to discussion of the bay, her skeptics’ main concern.

The 28 million gallons of water that the operation would draw from Chandler Bay she described as “a small percentage of water in the bay” compared to the 29 billion gallons between the mainland and nearby Bar Island, in which direction the intake and outfall pipes would lie. The recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) Kingfish would use would circulate “a ton of water” around the 10-acre grow-out building, she said, enough to fill eight Olympic swimming pools.

Most of the water would be used for heat exchanging, she said, and the six million gallons that came in contact with the fish would be UV-filtered and enriched with oxygen before going back into the bay. Four test sites would be placed in the bay between the Great Bar to the north and in waters between Ballast and Mark Islands to the south.

Solid waste, she said, would be filtered out, stored in settlement tanks, and trucked away to a landfill. (The waste is too salty to use in agriculture.) Organisms would be screened out of incoming water, the flow of which would be reduced to allow the screening to do its job. All the information, including permit applications and results, are available to the public, she said.

The questions

When Sorby opened the floor to questions, one of Kingfish’s harshest critics posed one of the most contentious issues: introduction of oxygen-killing nitrogen into Chandler Bay. Holly O’Neal, who lobster fishes with her boyfriend and who, with his mother, has done much research into the subject, immediately raised the prospect of the damage to eel grass from the nitrogen contained in Kingfish’s effluent.

In her introduction, Sorby had addressed the issue of nitrogen in the plant’s discharge. The state allows .45 kilograms per liter, she had said, and Chandler Bay currently contains .26 liters. Kingfish’s operation would raise that figure by .038 liters, leaving a gap of .152 liters between the allowable limit and what Kingfish would add. Planning board chairman and lobsterman Frank Smith wanted to know how far the nitrogen would travel. Answer: as far as it can be traced until it becomes non-detectable. Repeatedly, Sorby said that Kingfish would be as dependent on clean water as those who already use the bay. “Why would we release a viral load?”

Smith further expressed concern about scallop spat and juvenile lobsters being sucked in through the intake pipe and not surviving before being discharged back into the bay. A screen small enough to keep them out would impede water flow, he said. Sorby told him the holes in the screening would measure 25 millimeters. She said the issue had been studied at the University of Maine at Orono and Machias, and promised that Kingfish would use best engineering practices.

Glenda Beal asked if Kingfish would be paying money to The Nature Conservancy to offset damage to wetlands. Answer: no. Beal then cited a mitigation payment of $1.1 million referenced in her research materials. Sorby said that that payment would go to the state and was a common practice, the amount determined by the square foot.

Several in the audience had questions about Kingfish’s operation in the Netherlands, where a similar but smaller plant has been in operation since 2015. Smith asked what was in the water around the Dutch plant. Answer: European lobster, scallops. Lobsterman Charlie Smith asked whether there had been any impact on those fisheries. Answer: no. The facility is located next to a nature preserve, said Sorby in answer to a question from Betty Kelley, and surrounded by sugar beet farms.

Finally, Lynn Alley who, with her husband and select board chair Dwight, had sat through several earlier meetings, rose to say, “We’ve heard these questions before and they have been answered in this presentation. Many people in this room think this would be good for our town.” Her remarks were met with applause and quickly echoed by a familiar voice in the back of the room.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for our town,” declared William “Bimbo” Look, a former selectman, operator of one of the biggest seafood businesses in town, and an enthusiastic backer of Kingfish since its initial meeting at the town library in November, 2019. “We once had eight fish factories on [Moosabec] Reach,” he said, noting that they were all gone. The high school was designed for 300 students, but was down to 65, he said. “This could be a blessing in a number of ways…something we need. Lobstering is great,” he admitted, “but I’d lose as much as anyone if it went bust.

“The Sierra Club is behind the opposition,” he alleged. “What have they ever done for us? How long can we keep our high school with just 50 or 60 kids?” Charlie Smith said he was “100 percent for it [because] we’re dying with just lobster.”

“I totally support your facility,” Kelley told Sorby. Her husband, Eric, a retired minister, citing the absence of once-abundant fish such as cod and herring, said the ocean was already in trouble and that fish farming was the “thing of the future.”

Finally, a show of hands was called for. While there were a few more hands raised by those who supported Kingfish’s plan than those who opposed it, many watched with their hands in their laps.

In the meantime, the Maine chapter of the Sierra Club has challenged at least one of the company’s permits, the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to rule on disturbance of the wetlands (there are several acres on the property but they are not indicated for development), and the planning board has had a closed-door session with the town’s attorney about how to handle Kingfish’s pending building permit application.