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

Mon, 05/17/2021 - 9:15am

    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.”