There’s a new war brewing along the Maine coast, and the enemy is what some perceive as the uncontrolled spread of aquaculture.
According to the Department of Marine Resources, between 2017 and 2021, aquaculture leases in Maine waters increased from about 110 to approximately 185. The total acreage encompassed by active leases increased from less than 1,300 to about 1,750—an area slightly larger than Rockland Harbor.
The region has also seen the growth of aquaculture on an “industrial scale.”
Recently, four extremely large fish farming operations—three land-based and one in the waters of Frenchman Bay off Mount Desert Island—have been proposed or are in development in eastern Maine:
- In 2018, Whole Oceans announced plans to invest $250 million to build a land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) and grow 11 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually on the site of a former Bucksport paper mill. The project received approval from the State and town but, except for some preparation work construction has yet to begin.
- Also in 2018, Nordic Aquafarms announced plans to build a 66-million pound salmon RAS in Belfast. Nordic’s plans, approved both by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the city, generated substantial local opposition and the project is mired in litigation.
- In Jonesport, the Netherlands-based Kingfish Maine has received state and local approval for plans to build a $110 million RAS that could ultimately raise more than 18 million pounds of yellowtail annually in a facility on the shores of Chandler Bay. Some local residents have filed suit to overturn the town’s permit approval.
- In 2021, the Norway-based American Aquafarms applied to lease two 15-pen, 60-acre sites in Frenchman Bay to grow as much as 66 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually. The company also purchased a one-time Stinson Seafood Company cannery in the Gouldsboro village of Prospect Harbor to use as a nursery and processing facility. Last winter, the Department of Marine Resources rejected the company’s application and the project is on hold, if not dead. The ferocious opposition the plan engendered, and the unrest over the three large RAS projects, continues unabated.
Recently, several towns have considered adopting 180-day moratoriums on large new aquaculture operations to allow voters to consider ordinances regulating these projects on shore as well as in tidal and sub-tidal waters. The proposed moratoriums and ordinances largely followed a model from the Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, a Portland-based non-profit formed about four years ago by opponents to a proposed 40-acre shellfish aquaculture lease in Maquoit Bay, between South Freeport and Brunswick.
So far, at least eight eastern Maine towns have voted to put a hold on new “industrial scale” aquaculture projects: Addison, Beals, Cutler, Machiasport, and Roque Bluffs, all in Washington County; and Gouldsboro, Winter Harbor, and Penobscot, all in Hancock County.
While DMR may have sole authority over aquaculture leases, towns have “broad authority” under the “home rule” doctrine…
The ordinance defines “industrial-scale” as “a commercial facility on, in, or over Maine’s coastal waters (including submerged lands and intertidal lands) for the culture of finfish in nets, pens, or other enclosures or for the suspended culture of any other marine organism, that … occupies an aggregate surface area…greater than five acres.”
Gouldsboro has twice extended its 180-day moratorium, most recently last November, while the planning board labors over a comprehensive aquaculture ordinance. The latest draft runs to 16 pages.
Gouldsboro resident Becky O’Keefe supports a town ordinance, though she would limit it to finfish operations. She said DMR doesn’t do enough to protect local interests during the leasing process and that there’s “a thumb on the scale” favoring applicants, in part because of pressure on DMR to encourage economic development.
“American Aquafarms felt like a giant walking into our community that would crush us,” O’Keefe said. “Many of us did not trust the DEP or DMR would be well funded, well-resourced enough” to challenge the company’s science and experts.
Acceptance of a moratorium hasn’t been universal. Last summer, voters in Lubec rejected the proposal, and Jonesport voters rejected a moratorium by a ratio of better than 2:1. Hancock, Stonington, and Deer Isle all discussed moratoriums but have not put the issue before voters.
One question confronting towns is whether they have any legal authority to control aquaculture or whether that is entirely within the state’s jurisdiction. Protect Maine has been telling the towns they do. DMR has warned the towns they do not.
On its website, the foundation contends that while DMR may have sole authority over aquaculture leases, towns have “broad authority” under the “home rule” doctrine to regulate activities—including aquaculture both on shore and within the town’s waters—occurring within their boundaries.
“The towns are being misled into believing they have the resources or authority to effectively manage aquaculture in state waters,” Sebastian Belle, Executive Director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said recently. “This could cost towns millions over the years” in legal fees and the expense of staff needed to administer the complex provisions of the ordinance.
And, Belle said, it’s unnecessary. Towns already have an “elevated” position under DMR’s lease rules. “I can’t recall any lease that’s been granted where the town objected,” he said.