Growth of Maine’s aquaculture industry sparks conversation about carbon footprint

Will the benefits of locally grown food outweigh the energy-intensive processes used by aquafarms?

by | May 16, 2021

A rendering from 2021 shows the proposed Nordic Aquafarms facility in Belfast. Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms.

Maine’s first commercial aquaculture permit was granted to Ed Meyers in 1975. Known as the “father of mussel farming in the United States,” Meyers’ pioneering mussel farm on the Damariscotta River laid the foundation for Maine’s aquaculture industry. 

Today there are five industrial-scale aquaculture projects slated for the state. Three have received final or draft permits — Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast, Whole Oceans in Bucksport and Kingfish Maine in Jonesport — while two other projects are working their way through the permitting process. 

Environmental activists are concerned with the carbon footprint of Maine’s burgeoning aquaculture industry while industry leaders are excited about the progress.  

“The takeaway of this is that — if you combine these projects — their collective footprint is gigantic,” said Francis Weld, a Sierra Club volunteer who testified in support of a killed bill and resolve aiming to tighten leasing and size restrictions for aquaculture projects. 

Aquaculture farmers cultivate water-dwelling plants and organisms under controlled conditions, as opposed to extracting them from the wild. The work relies heavily on energy for filtering millions of gallons of water a day. The three aquaculture projects that have made it through Maine’s permitting process would collectively discharge 47.3 million gallons of water per day. 

While this process is energy-intensive, local aquaculture projects emit less carbon by trucking products locally rather than flying in seafood imports. 

“Obviously when you get some scale on this, there’s going to be an addition of CO2 locally,” said Eric Heim, president of Nordic Aquafarms. “But it’s still under half of what all the imported seafood coming in has.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, and over half of the imports come from overseas aquaculture farms. 

Over the last 20 years, Maine’s aquaculture industry has grown roughly 2 percent each year while the global industry has grown roughly 8 percent per year, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. 

“Maine is behind,” said Belle. “We’re growing very slowly and very steadily. And if you compare us to any other place in the world, we are laughably small.”

As Maine’s aquaculture industry grows, broader environmental concerns about the impacts of energy consumption across industries have mounted. The Legislature is considering a bill that would track the climate impacts from carbon-intensive industries. 

“(The bill) is at best a step in the right direction,” said Weld of the Sierra Club. “It’s the only effort I’ve seen so far that tries to offer guidance for these massive projects that are coming to the table.” 

But lawmakers have been reluctant to support the proposal, with the state and local government committee voting it down 10-2, with one member absent. The full Legislature could vote on the bill as early as May 19.

While balancing carbon emissions and offsets to calculate the carbon footprint of any industry is difficult, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grayson Lookner (D-Portland), sees this type of legislation as essential. 

“Climate change is such a crisis that it rises to the urgency and the necessity of weighing its impact on every single bill that the legislature contemplates,” said Grayson. “Everything that we do in all industries potentially has a climate impact.” 

Possible expansion of PUC priorities to include climate and equity

A bill aiming to expand the responsibilities of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) to include climate-conscious priorities has garnered support from government, industry and advocacy groups. 

The legislation would require the PUC to take into account climate equity and emissions when evaluating projects to help meet the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gases.   

“It’s just adding climate and equity to the PUC authority, but the impacts from it on electrification of Maine’s clean energy future are pretty incredible,” said Jeff Marks, director and senior policy advocate at the Acadia Center, who testified in support of the bill. “If the PUC is allowed to consider these and is required to consider these issues, we can make the investments today that reduce costs for everybody in the future.” 

During a May 12 public hearing in the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, the bill received support from Melissa Winne of the governor’s energy office. No one testified against the bill and Phil Bartlett, chair of the PUC, testified neither for nor against it. 

The PUC does not object to adding a climate category to its guiding principles because “this is fairly consistent with our current practice,” said Bartlett. “With respect to the equity issues, I think (that) needs more clarification, more direction from the committee because this is shifting what has traditionally been a very legislative prerogative to the commission … in a way that is a little bit uncomfortable to us.”

The bill comes on the heels of an independent report last month that prioritized nine recommendations for how Maine’s future electricity grid should be structured, including that the PUC consider climate, equity and environmental justice in decision-making. A variety of groups participated in the process, including municipal governments, environmental nonprofits and energy companies. 

“It’s a priority for a reason because it has a big impact on how state agencies — particularly the PUC — implement the Climate Action Plan,” said Marks of the Acadia Center. “We want to make sure that the impacts of the plan don’t disproportionately impact those communities that are overburdened and underserved by the current system.”

Questions loom as out-of-state company closes in on Hampden waste plant

A Pennsylvania company that specializes in burning a mixture of sewage sludge and municipal trash is looking to close a deal on the former Coastal Resources of Maine waste processing plant in Hampden. 

The company, Delta Thermo Energy, is looking to close negotiations this summer in hopes of managing the waste of over 100 Maine municipalities.

If granted the opportunity, this would be the company’s first time operating a stateside industrial processing plant after several failed attempts in the mid-Atlantic region, reported David Marino Jr. of the Bangor Daily News

The company’s mischaracterization of its technology and exaggeration of its international operations has raised concerns about the type of technology Delta Thermo Energy plans to use in Maine. 

There’s now some confusion over how Delta Thermo would incorporate its technology there. In a Municipal Review Committee meeting on April 28, Delta Thermo CEO Rob Van Naarden said his company’s process does not involve burning trash to create electricity, and that nothing would be burned at the Hampden plant,” wrote Marino. 

Marino reported that the company would need to obtain permits from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection if it plans to turn municipal waste into energy by using its current technology.

Katie Brown

Katie Brown

Katie Brown covers environmental stories for the Maine Monitor. She is the organization’s second Report For America corps member and full-time reporter. Brown previously worked as a newspaper reporter and radio producer in Santa Cruz, California while earning her master's in science communication. She's investigated stories from commercial fishing boats, sacred native mountains and winding smoke-filled highways.


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