Ocean-based fish farms pose a unique threat to aquatic ecosystems because no more than a porous net separates genetically altered fish and thousands of tons of pollutants from nearby streams, coastal waters, and sensitive marine life. In 2000, NELC brought a first-of-its kind lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group against Heritage Salmon, Inc., a Canadian corporation operating five salmon net pen facilities on the Maine coast. Our lawsuit alleged that Heritage was discharging pollutants without the federal permits required for “concentrated animal feeding operations.” Such pollutants included: copper “antifoulants” applied to fish nets; sea lice and infectious diseases spread by the dense, unnatural salmon monoculture; tons of excess salmon feed — containing poultry waste, food dye, and antibiotics — that formed anoxic mats on the sea floor; and escaped, non-native salmon that interbred with, and spread pestilence to, endangered wild salmon.

NELC negotiated a settlement with Heritage to protect wild salmon populations, forbidding the company from stocking non-native or genetically modified salmon, from discharging pollutants in toxic concentrations, and from using experimental drugs and antibiotics without approval. The settlement also required Heritage to improve its fish containment measures in order to prevent disease and minimize escapes. Finally, Heritage paid a $375,000 penalty to fund wild Atlantic salmon restoration efforts in the area. The litigation also led to the development and issuance of Clean Water Act permits that regulate Maine’s burgeoning salmon aquaculture industry.