Still waiting for final permit, Maine's Kingfish gets first shipment of yellowtail

The company hoping to build a large fish farm in Jonesport recently received its first shipment of yellowtail kingfish from the Netherlands, in an effort to boost production in anticipation of a final permit.

"When you're planning a large facility, it's critical to get the fish ready ahead of time," said Megan Sorby, operations manager for Kingfish Maine, the U.S. arm of a company owned by Kingfish Zeeland of the Netherlands.

They are awaiting approval to build a new facility on 93 acres in Jonesport, where the company is leasing space at the Cooperative Aquaculture Research Center at the University of Maine at Franklin. During a tour last week, Sowerby noted that a box of yellowtail bladderless rockfish that first arrived May 10 was not yet the size of a thumbnail.

They are known as minnows and are currently being quarantined because of their recent arrival from overseas. Even before they were shipped to the United States, she said, the company sent scientists to the Netherlands to test the stock.

Before the company could begin building a permanent home for the fish, it needed permission from the Army Corps of Engineers and approval from the Jonesport Planning Commission. In recent months, residents have begun to question the project, and the president of a group called Protect doweast said on Friday that the company was dismissive of opponents.

Chris Smith, who fishes for lobster and scallops, said, "To start fishing before (the company) gets a local permit is clearly disregarding our community." More than 230 marine harvesters in Jonesport and surrounding communities signed a letter expressing their opposition to the project. Local voices still need to be heard and our community will not be run over by a foreign company with deep pockets."

The company plans to build a land-based fish farm on Duncavan Road with a floor area of approximately 573,500 square meters. This recirculating aquaculture system will take water from Chandler Bay, filter it and put it into tanks for use, then discharge up to 29 million gallons per day of treated wastewater back into Chandler Bay.

After state review, the company was granted a five-year permit to discharge pollutants into the bay, and the Department of Environmental Protection found that the project would not lower water quality below current levels.

If all goes according to plan, the company hopes to break ground by the end of this year and be fishing on site within 18 months. The project will take three years, cost about $100 million and will employ 70 to 100 people.

At an aquaculture conference in Portland last month, Sowerby said she believes that when the plant is up and running, residents will realize they are a good fit for the local shrimping and fishing community.

She said:There are "a lot of synergies with the existing operations that are going on." "The lobster fishermen have to truck their product, just like we do when we go to the processing plant or just to the market. Can we share the infrastructure? Can we share these freight companies?"

In addition, the company is testing whether the fish it produces can be used as bait by lobstermen and hopes to find a way to produce biogas from the waste.

In the next few months, the company plans to introduce larger yellowtail, called "subadults," to further increase their numbers. The fish take three years to reach sexual maturity before they can spawn.

Yellowtail kingfish are typically used in sushi, but can also be baked like other white fish, Sobey said. The company's fish is already available at Whole Foods, which stocks yellowtail from the Netherlands.

Like other companies planning to open large fish farms in Maine - including Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast and Whole Oceans in Bucksport, both of which plan to raise salmon - Kingfish Maine is looking to enter major markets near Boston and New York.

A fourth proposal to establish an industrial salmon farm in Bar Harbor was put on hold because of a decision last month by the U.S. Department of Marine Resources to stop reviewing applications for U.S. aquaculture farms. The state said it has not yet identified an acceptable source for its eggs, meaning the company would have to start a new application from scratch if it wanted to open a plant in Maine.

In Jonesport, Sobey and other company officials have held meetings in recent weeks to try to respond to the community's concerns. Not only is the company being asked to maintain the water quality of the bay, she said, but it has a vested interest in doing so.

"If the bay gets polluted, our fish will die," said Tom Sorby, who serves as operations manager with his wife, Megan. "If we want to make money, we need to protect the bay. I need good water."

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