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Salmon farming in Maine mounting a strong comeback

Erik Bagley of Cooke Aquaculture Inc., a Canadian company, with salmon harvested from a pen near Eastport, Maine. Erik Bagley of Cooke Aquaculture Inc., a Canadian company, with salmon harvested from a pen near Eastport, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)
By Jerry Harkavy
Associated Press / November 23, 2008
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EASTPORT, Maine - It's feeding time in the salmon cage at Cobscook Bay's Broad Cove and the 25,000 fish are hungry.

The twice-daily dinner arrives on a barge loaded with 80 tons of feed pellets. From his control console, the operator maneuvers a 3-inch plastic pipe to deliver the feed. In a matter of minutes, an underwater camera shows that the salmon have satisfied their hunger, as evidenced by a sprinkle of feed that draws no takers. At that point, the operator turns off the feeder, to avoid pollution and wasting food.

The centralized, automated feeding system is among the changes now in place as Maine's salmon farming industry mounts a vigorous comeback five years after it collapsed when the three biggest players sold off their operations and left the state.

The new owner is Cooke Aquaculture Inc., a family-owned business across the border in Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, that has invested $60 million to restore production to its former peak levels. It also plans to put an idle processing plant back in operation next year.

Salmon farming was a bright spot in the Down East economy before a series of setbacks set the stage for the industry's downfall.

The federal government's decision to list wild Atlantic salmon as endangered on eight Maine rivers led to tougher regulations. A disease outbreak forced the destruction of large numbers of fish, and a federal judge fined two Maine producers for violating the federal Clean Water Act by fouling the sea floor with excess feed, medications, feces, and other pollutants.

"It was kind of like a perfect storm," said George Lapointe, commissioner of the state Department of Marine Resources.

Dramatic changes in the economics of the business added to the woes of salmon farmers, Lapointe recalled. Prices tumbled from $5 a pound to less than $2 for a time, he said. "It went from a specialty product to a commodity product."

Today, industry leaders say, salmon farming is healthier, more efficient, and more in tune with the environment. And it's looking to expand.

Maine and Washington are the only states where salmon is farmed, but their combined output is dwarfed by that of major producers such as Chile, Norway, Scotland, and Canada.

In the United States, catfish holds sway as the top aquaculture species, outstripping salmon and various types of shellfish.

Maine's 2008 salmon harvest is likely to total more than 20 million pounds, the highest since production peaked at 36 million pounds in 2000 and 29 million a year later, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

Cooke has adopted a number of changes, including writing into state law a requirement that saltwater pens lie fallow for a period of time after fish are harvested. The salmon industry says this prevents the growth of pathogens that can be deadly to fish.

The process involves a three-year cycle in which it takes two years to grow the fish and another year to pull out the nets and steam clean and disinfect the cages while the site is fallow.

Environmentalists who fought the aquaculture operators in court remain skeptical about Cooke's operations.

Raising huge numbers of fish in pens creates a breeding ground for pests and disease, discharges large amounts of waste, and poses a threat to wild salmon, they say.

"Basically it's hard to trust this industry, and whether they should even be doing what they're doing is kind of a bigger question," said Josh Kratka, an attorney with the National Environmental Law Center.

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