A Trip Downeast: Salmon, Coasties, and Camping

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts from students in the class Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, or as the students say, Fish, Fish, Fish.  This class is co-taught be me and my colleague Natalie Springuel, a Maine Sea Grant marine extension associate based out of COA. The class had its final presentations June 3rd, but we are still getting a couple of our last blogposts up – Chris Petersen

By Michael Cornish and Nicholas Tonti

At around 11 o’clock on Friday, May 13th, Chris Petersen and Natalie Springuel’s class Fisheries, Fisherman, and Fishing Communities loaded into two College of the Atlantic vans and headed Downeast for a weekend field trip to the easternmost city in the United States, Eastport ME. Eastport is a historic fishing and canning community on the Cobscook bay that is now home to numerous lobster, scallop, elver, clam, and urchin fishermen, several salmon aquaculture installations owned and operated by Cooke Aquaculture of Brunswick, Canada, and a tight-knit arts community. We made the trip hoping that we would be able to experience the town as it were 100 years ago, with brick canneries and white fishing boats dotting the coast, as well as the way it is now with modern fishing and aquaculture practices at work. We hoped that the trip would give us a sense of what it was not only like to live in an isolated fishing community but also how it has changed and the problems that were, and are, currently threatening that way of life.

After a two-and-a-half hour drive from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, we met up with the wonderfully enthusiastic Chris Bartlett of Maine Sea Grant, and immediately departed from the port, taking the short drive to Cooke Aquaculture wherewhere Butch Harris, a fisherman and the owner the tour company Eastport Windjammers met us with his 47″ lobster boat to take out to the salmon pens

Cooke Aquaculture

Dave-Morang-and-students

Dave Morang, manager of Cooke Farms, Eastport (center) and Kevin Murray, site manager give an overview of their aquaculture process. Meret is wondering where the sails are on this strange boat. Photo credit: Michael Cornish

We were welcomed to the Cooke Aquaculture facility in Broad Cove by manager Dave Morang. Morang was happy to respond to questions asked by our class, such as: “how does the Eastport community view Cooke Aquaculture?” or “do you ever cast a line in the pens and fish?”. All jokes aside, our class truly loved gaining more knowledge on aquaculture and the community of Eastport. The salmon were fed automatically by rotating arms that evenly tossed food throughout the pen’s water surface. It was interesting to see how new technological innovations, such as camera-monitored feeding equipment and “robot arms” to clean fowling, have really modernized the industry. As the feeders were twirling away, Morang told us about the days where they had to hand feed all of the Atlantic salmon, a process in which he said used to take all day. Morang and the other Cooke employees did not hide their happiness about not having to do that tedious work any more.
These operations are much larger than the initial salmon aquaculture done here in the 1980s. As the herring pellets hit the surface of the water the salmon jumped and thrashed for the feed, living up to their Latin name, meaning “great leaper.” The site that we visited had twenty pens, each 8 meters deep by 30 meters across and containing 25,000 four-pound Atlantic salmon. This adds up to 100,000 pounds of fish per pen, and they were small, only weighing 4 pounds each!

fish-pen

Fish pens with herring gulls in Broad Cove. Photo: Michael Cornish

The fish currently held in the pens will not be ready to harvest until they reach at least ten pounds. The salmons’ voyage in the pens begins when they are smolt. Cooke raises the fish from eggs until they reach the smolt stage, when fish typically leave freshwater and begin their oceanic period. However, Atlantic salmon smolt can not be collected from any river in the wild because of their low population. Cooke has its own hatchery and adults, with these Atlantic salmon, Cooke has done selective breeding to maximize a variety of aspects of the fish, from speed of growth to the ultimate size of the salmon.

Morang spent a great deal of time comparing new aquaculture to old aquaculture. However, even with all of the advances there are still a lot of vulnerabilities within the industry. For example, infectious salmon anemia (ISA) has been following Cooke throughout their time farming salmon, and is currently an issue in some facilities in Canada and South America. ISA is a deadly virus to salmon. And in Canada it is illegal to sell the fish when they have been affected by the disease. The disease hit the bay in the mid 2000’s, and now Cooke uses several strategies to minimize the risk, including raising same-age cohorts in all the pens in a given year, letting areas lay fallow (no fish) once a group is harvested, and vaccinating every fish by hand when they are smolt. The disease has not been back to Broad Cove since 2008, but there are no guarantees in aquaculture or agriculture. When the disease hit in the past, it devastated the Cooke facility and the Eastport community, putting jobs and livelihoods in jeopardy.

All photos above by Natalie Springuel 

With three other facilities in Cobscook Bay, Cooke Aquaculture has over one million fish to look after. With this large biomass of fish, Cooke needs a number of employees. Cooke employs 35 people in Eastport, a town of 1,293. That is about three percent of Eastport’s population, meaning that the jobs would be equivalent to how many employees College of the Atlantic has in a town like Bar Harbor. Cooke doesn’t end its reach in Eastport, they employ over 200 people in Washington County, leading them to claim that they are the second largest employer in Downeast, Maine. Not only do they pay well, but a job with Cooke also includes benefits and insurance, leading many to stay with the company year after year.

We enjoyed the people and town of Eastport and their hospitality quite a lot. Our boat captain, Butch Harris, was happy to talk about his history in the Eastport fisheries, and his addition of ecotourism to his business model.  Another great example of the openness of the community happened when we returned the port authority building where we were met by a member of the Eastport Coast Guard named Kyle who invited us on an impromptu tour of their boats led by his staff, who answered questions ranging from inspection of fishing boats to horsepower, tours of duty and future plans. The boats were spick and span with barely a dust particle to be found anywhere, an interesting contrast to the fishing vessels in the harbor that bore the scars of their occupation. In the background they were rebuilding the pier that collapsed in December 2014.

After wandering through the town and checking out art galleries, we took a thirty-minute drive to the Cobscook State Park where we made camp for the night. Once we set up camp we were re-joined by Chris Bartlett and his two daughters who graciously answered many of our questions from those about the aquaculture facility and town of Eastport to ones about his past and personal connections and stories to these places. Having him at the camp as a resource gave us more perspective on the people and place, from the role of the coast guard in helping to find a missing clammer to the challenges the community faces over natural resource use and conflicts on clamflats. Overall Chris was an amazing resource that we not only got to hear from during our time in Eastport, but also got to bring us to an active alewife run (blogpost coming soon).

First and foremost we would like to thank Chris Bartlett for helping to facilitate this trip as well as being a fantastic resource for the class. We would also like to thank Dave Morang for opening his business to us and sharing his daily life as a salmon farmer in Maine as well as Butch Harris who graciously gave us a tour of the salmon pens in his boat.

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