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‘Our Waters’ Documentary Highlights One Community’s Fight to Protect Its Coast from Commercial Exploitation

As salmon demand has grown, so too have large-scale, environmentally destructive aquaculture projects. The community of Frenchman Bay, Maine is fighting a plan to build North America’s largest industrialized, open-net fish farms in their backyard.

An upcoming, short documentary called Our Waters shows how the local community along Frenchman Bay — in the fragile, ecologically rich Gulf of Maine in the northeast United States — is fighting against a plan by multibillion-dollar company American Aquafarms to build a massive salmon farming operation in their backyard.

“There's a lot of people in the community that are really upset that the money behind this Norwegian company is potentially strong enough to overcome the clear consensus from the people,” Josh Murphy, director of the documentary, told Sustainable Brands®.

This documentary, accompanied by a campaign led by Parley for the OceansParley.TV, hopes to change that. But the Frenchman Bay community is up against not just one company but a powerful, growing, global industry. As demand for salmon has risen — alongside sustainability challenges in key salmon fisheries due to human development and climate change — salmon farming has exploded as billions in investments have flown into large-scale, aquaculture companies.

Salmon farming has a bad reputation, and for good reason. It’s been blamed for leaking waste, chemicals and diseases into local waterways; harming marine ecosystems and driving up demand for unsustainable fish meal. There are also concerns that genetically modified salmon — commonly bred in farms — could escape, breed with native salmon, and reduce the genetic diversity of wild species.

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“Salmon farming is a prime example of a broken food system. Every year, it hoovers up millions of tonnes of wild-caught fish for feed; mortality rates on farms are soaring, and pollution is harming pristine ecosystems and wild salmon,” Natasha Hurley, campaigns manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, said in a press statement.

But, like any technology, the reality is that not all fish farming is the same; and it can be done sustainably — depending on how and where it’s done, and whether or not local communities are involved. Unfortunately, what is taking place in Maine is clearly on the wrong end of the spectrum. The plan is to build the largest industrialized, open-net fish farms in North America, which would discharge 4.1 billion gallons of untreated effluent a day and produce more nitrogen runoff than Maine’s four largest cities combined — all into Frenchman Bay.

“It's a net hanging in the ocean; so they don't have to pick up any of the excess feed, excess feces, or all of the chemicals that they use to treat the sea lice on the fish. They just dump it into the public's water,” Murphy says.

For the local community, this means the fisheries that they rely on could be harmed. There are also fears that nearby Acadia National Park could be affected, potentially impacting tourism and the economic benefits that come from that, too.

The irony is that this type of fish farming has been prohibited in every state except for Maine — due, primarily, to its oversized environmental impacts. By pursuing this project, American Aquaculture — a subsidiary of Norwegian holding company Blue Future — wants to put the environmental costs of its plans onto the local community.

“It's a lot cheaper to pollute the public resource for your profit,” Murphy says. But there are better alternatives. “Land-based fish farming is very viable — it just hasn't been invested in as much because it costs more, which means less profit for the companies.”

This begs the question — where are the investors and retailers? Investors should not be supporting companies that put profits over the long-term health of the planet, while retailers could do more to ensure they are procuring sustainably sourced salmon.

“[Brands] could say we're not going to sell open-ocean-farmed salmon — because of the environmental impacts it has — but that's not been the case yet,” Murphy said.

The filmmaker is optimistic, however, that public pressure will force the Maine legislature to join its peers across the country and prohibit open-net fish farming in its coastal waters. But the fight won’t end here. Across the world, similar projects are cropping up, threatening local biodiversity and livelihoods in places including Chile — a major exporter of farmed salmon to countries including the US and Japan.

That is why merely opposing bad projects is not enough; Murphy asserts that the entire system needs to be rethought. Why does money so readily flow into these agribusiness solutions to produce fish for human consumption, and not into nature itself? The building of dams along key salmon-migration routes has severely impacted wild salmon catches in places such as Washington, Oregon and Alaska — a situation getting worse due to climate change. Restoring landscapes and removing old and unneeded dams could, he argues, drastically increase salmon populations.

“Who is investing in protecting the environment that used to give us these fish for free? There are billions of dollars being poured into aquaculture right now, and little into protecting the wild. And that, to me, is just astounding,” Murphy laments.

Investing in nature would also empower some of the communities who have had the longest relationships with salmon — Native American communities such as the Nez Perce Tribe in the Pacific Northwest or the Yakama Nation in Washington, who have been calling for increased action on natural solutions in their native lands for years.

“Tribes, maybe more than anyone, understand the moment we face: a salmon crisis, a climate crisis, and a long-overdue opportunity to address 90 years of tribal injustice,” said Nez Perce Tribe Vice-Chairman Shannon F. Wheeler.

Supporting efforts by communities such as the Yakama, Nez Perce and Frenchman Bay to implement sustainable, holistic, long-term solutions is the only way to adequately address the core root of the fisheries crisis. That also means investors must commit funds into nature-based solutions — and not agribusiness as usual.