State agencies, lobbyists lead opposition to bills designed to add protection for coastal waters

AUGUSTA, March 18, 2023 – This is how industrialization will eventually claim Maine’s coastal waters – with cunning, expensive lobbyists doing their thing and state agencies as willing partners.

On Friday they rolled out a formidable vanguard of “mom and pop” operators at legislative hearings to oppose two bills which would give coastal towns a bigger voice and to ensure giant fish farms do not destroy estuaries and bays by pumping too much nitrogen and effluent into them.

Nothing tugs at a Maine legislator more than small fishing businesses pleading for “survival.”

The aquaculture industry has brilliantly co-opted this cohort to serve as its public face.

“There was a lot of small operators who showed up, organized by Sebastian Bell,” said Jim Merkel, who helped draft LD 586, a bill to induce less harmful detritus from land-based fish farms. Bell is the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, a lobbyist which has made significant strides to open Maine’s coastal waters to aquafarming the last decade.

“They’ve been convinced by him (Bell) that this bill would put them out of business, which the bill doesn’t even address,” said Merkel, a member of the Sierra Club.

One after another, small oyster farms, eel producers, seaweed farmers came to the podium and read what sounded like scripted comments: Current regulations are just fine, don’t choke off our livelihoods and don’t impose unnecessary protection of the environment.

More than five hours of testimony later, it was clear the sponsors of the bills – environmentalists and officials of towns abutting Frenchman Bay – were over matched. (The hearings started late, at 2:25 p.m. into the recording above).

Bill LD 487 sponsored by Bar Harbor’s Lynne Williams would create regional planning agencies to effect some measure of local oversight over waters such as Frenchman Bay, where a Norwegian company in 2021 planned to build two net pen salmon farms.

Bill LD 586 would force land-based fish farms to apply less destructive technology to reduce nitrogen and carbon emission.

Their inchoate entry into Maine politics was overwhelmed by a well orchestrated effort which included two of Maine’s agencies – marine resources and economic development – and aquaculture lobbyists.

Williams called the scene Friday in Room 206 of the Cross Building a stark example of “regulatory capture” where the agencies tell elected officials what to do, as opposed to elected officials making laws that the agencies have to follow.

“It doesn’t go on in the Department of Transportation. We tell the Turnpike Authority and other officials what to do, and they do it. It’s the exact opposite in marine resources, and it really pisses me off. It just is terrible,” said Williams, co-chair of the legislature’s transportation committee.

Deirdre Gilbert, director of Maine marine policy, began the testimony opposing both bills. She was followed by Heather Johnson, commissioner of economic development, who has given one company, Kingfish Maine, extraordinary support, including tax abatement from the Pine Tree Development Zone program and loan guarantees from Maine’s finance authority. In 2020 she urged the DEP to permit Kingfish despite concerns raised about its environmental impact, saying the economic benefits trumped those considerations.

Kingfish is in the preconstruction stage of a $110 million land-based fish farm on Chandler Bay in Jonesport.

On Dec. 2, The QSJ reported how Johnson’s staff was peddling coastal towns to fish farms without the knowledge of municipal officials.

Once DMR’s Gilbert spoke, current applicants awaiting DMR approval for new aquaculture leases took to the mic in tow to ape her opposition.

One was Bar Harbor mussel farmer Alex DeKoning.

His family leases 158 acres in Frenchman Bay from the state and has applied for more. It has two applications pending at the DMR – one for 48 acres and a longer-term plan for 68 acres to raise scallops.

That would be 144 acres more than what was requested by American Aquafarms, the Norwegian company which sparked a regional protest when it proposed to build two 60-acre net salmon farms in Frenchman Bay.

The DeKonings are already the largest permit holder in acreage in the bay. The QSJ wrote this article last July about the opposition to their applications and to the DeKongings’ use of heavy dredging equipment which digs deeper into the seabed. (scroll to the second article).

“They not only want to be the king fish of the whole industry,” said Rep. Williams “But they (DeKonings) want to put everyone else down, people who want moderate regulations.”

Former Jonesport select member Billy Milliken spoke against LD 586. Milliken helped the town reject by 201-91 vote last summer a proposed moratorium on aquafarming.

“Opponents of land-based agriculture are manipulating the legislative process attempting to stop projects, which have already been permitted by local state federal agencies. They’re trying to obstruct economic development for coastal communities with fear mongering. I’m a tenth generation in my family to be a lifelong resident of Jonesport. I operate a business there that employs 10 people.”

What Milliken did not tell the committee was that his real estate business was the listing agent for the 94-acre Kingfish site.

Trey Angera, co-owner of Springtide Seaweed based in Gouldsboro, spoke against both bills. His company has plans to create high volumes of nori, dulse and other premium saltwater algae in coastal Maine, the U.S. and beyond, according to the Ellsworth American. His company is completely reliant on the DMR and DEP for permits to allow further growth.

A year ago, Springtide was awarded a $650,000 federal grant to design such systems.

While kelp farming is generally regarded as environmentally friendly, it does require the taking of surface acreage, creating navigational challenges for other boaters. Earlier last year Springtide’s application to expand its footprint was rejected by the state.

But he and others are getting plenty of assistance through a quasi public agency, SEAMaine, designed to lobby for federal dollars to fund enterprises like Springtide.

Its purpose, as stated on its website?

“SEAMaineor the Seafood Economic Accelerator for Maine, is an industry-led initiative bringing together leaders in Maine’s commercial fishing, aquaculture, and seafood economy. Funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, with match funding from the Maine Technology Institute and FocusMaine, the statewide initiative is developing a roadmap and action plan for economic growth, market and workforce development, and greater resiliency in Maine’s seafood economy.”

Its “steering committee” includes Sebastian Bell and Peter DelGreco, president of Maine & Co.

In April 2022, the QSJ profiled Maine & Co. in an article entitled, “How a Norwegian felon managed to get white-glove welcome from Maine.”

Sara Rademaker, co-owner of American Unagi, also spoke against LD 586. She did not say she was co-chair of SEAMaine.

The Island Institute spoke against LD 586 and did not mention that Sebastian Bell is a board member.

Only Damien Brady of the University of Maine came clean and stated that some UMaine studies cited by those opposing LD 586 were paid for by industry:

“In the interest of full transparency, the University of Maine does objective research and monitoring related to fish feeds and water quality connected to recirculating aquaculture system projects including for industrial clients.”

DelGreco repeated a mantra being trafficked by Bell that critics of industrial aquaculture “are very well funded and run by professionals. In some cases, they are deliberately targeting members of the aquaculture community to pit groups against one another. If we let that happen, our collective ability to protect our community interests will be hindered.”

That was contained in a Feb. 22 “legislative update” written by Bell and obtained by the QSJ in which he stated, “We can expect a handful of carefully orchestrated public relations campaigns … They will try to fracture the working waterfront community (shellfish vs. finfish, big vs. small operations, fishermen vs. aquaculturists), work to undercut MAA’s credibility, and scare fishermen and policy makers by implying that the state’s system of regulating aquaculture is not adequate and must be stricter.”

MAA is the only organization which appears to be fracturing the waterfront community pitting one against the other and spending six figures annually on PR and lobbying efforts.

The QSJ asked Bell in an email to identify these well-funded professionals. I am still awaiting a reply.

DelGreco used some of Bell’s exact wording in his testimony Friday:

“Well-funded consultants and wealthy landowners are pushing this bill because they have not been able to demonstrate to regulators that these land-based aquaculture projects are harmful.”

“Rather, they are an inconvenience to people who have no vested interest in economic development in Maine. They have made their fortunes and are trying to hide behind a veil of environmentalism.”

Who was DelGreco talking about?

Was he referring to the Sierra Club, the country’s oldest grassroots environmental organization?

The QSJ asked him to name names. I’m still awaiting a reply.

In his Feb. 22 legislative update, Bell referred to Cooke Aquaculture, the only company he cited by name, as exemplifying the industry as “family owned.” He did not mentioned Cooke is a major funder and board member of the MAA.

He also did not mention Cooke’s long history of environmental violations.

On Nov. 27, 2021 the QSJ reported that Cooke was ranked the worst seafood sustainability performer of all aquaculture companies in the world as measured by an organization which monitors such matters.

Cooke, one of the largest aquaculture company in the world based in Canada, has had numerous incidents of failed equipment, fish die-offs and escapes, leading to multiple sanctions, with Maine being the weakest.

The State of Washington passed legislation in 2018 forbidding non-native fish farming in its waters as a result of Cooke’s 2017 net pen collapse in Puget Sound in which 263,000 salmon escaped.

In 2019 it paid $2.75 million in legal fees and to fund Puget Sound restoration projects, to settle a Clean Water Act lawsuit that followed the 2017 collapse.

Cooke was a subject of the 2022 book, “Salmon Wars,” by investigative reporters Douglas Frantz and Catherine Collins who wrote that the industry has “outstripped the ability of governments to regulate its practices from polluting oceans and producing contaminated products, to contributing to illegal fishing and to food shortages in lower-income countries.”

In Aug. 16, 2021, Cooke suffered a massive die-off of 116,000 salmon at its farm off Black Island in Maine but was able to clean its pens and haul the carcasses to a compost in Tremont before alerting the DEP, which inspected the site two weeks later – on Aug. 31, 2021. I published this article on Nov. 27, 2021 questioning Maine’s ability to regulate aquaculture.

In his testimony, Merkel said if the five current proposed fish farms in Maine were to become reality, they would emit carbon equal to 400,000 cars added to Maine’s roads and chew up ” 50 percent of Maine’s 2030 greenhouse gas budget.”

The nitrogen emitted into Maine’s coastal waters would equal the cumulative release of 19 Portland city sewers of waste wastewater treatment facilities in today’s waters, Merkel said.

“That’s pollution equal to 1.2 million people or just about the entire population of Maine. There are technologies to reduce both carbon in it.”

After the hearing, Merkel said he talked to “quite a few” of the opposing small aquaculturists and admitted that the language in LD 586 probably could have been clearer that it was meant to target industrial fish farms only.

“There was an eel farmer who thought ‘your bill is saying you can’t put wild ingredients in the feed. I have to feed my eels with wild ingredients,’ ” Merkel said he was told.

“Our bill was not specific enough on purpose so that we could develop the rules more together,” Merkel said.

But after the hearing he thinks the bill needs to be re-drafted – the sponsors have only one week before the Joint Committee on Marine Resources goes into a working session.

“I thought we did a good job presenting ourselves, but then they clobbered us because no legislator wants to go against all these nice young, small business owners.

“Basically what we got to make the bill say and be really clear is all these small operators aren’t affected by this bill.”

Lincoln Millstein
March 18, 2023
The Quietside Journal