Aquaculture debate reignited as towns consider moratoriums

While eight municipalities have passed moratoriums, the state questions if they have the right to do so.
Aerial shot of the planned commercial aquaculture facility in Belfast for Nordic Aquafarms.
A rendering from 2021 shows the proposed Nordic Aquafarms facility in Belfast. Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms.

While concerns about fish farming in Maine have been fairly muted for some time in areas like Eastport and Lubec, where it began in the 1980s, towns along the coast that have been the focus of recent industrial-scale projects, including Jonesport, Gouldsboro, Bucksport and Belfast, have been seeing intense debates.

Prompted by those proposals, a group called Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation has been working to have municipalities enact moratoriums and ordinances limiting any large-scale proposals.

While eight municipalities have now passed moratoriums, the state has stepped in, questioning if they have the right to do so, since the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has exclusive jurisdiction to lease state waters for aquaculture.

However, both the foundation and some towns are questioning that exclusive authority.

Two municipalities, Cutler and Waldoboro, have approved ordinances regulating aquaculture, and the other towns that have approved moratoriums are Machiasport, Beals, Roque Bluffs, Winter Harbor, Penobscot and South Bristol. Cutler approved its ordinance, which limits aquaculture leases to a half acre, in November 2022. Waldoboro’s ordinance does not allow for any aquaculture leases.

Crystal Canney, executive director of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, says the moratoriums, which are for six months and can be renewed multiple times, allow towns the time to develop and approve an ordinance.

The foundation is providing municipalities with possible language both for moratoriums on any new large-scale aquaculture projects and for municipal ordinances that would require a permit from the town’s planning board before an aquaculture facility could be built.

“We provide the towns with proposed moratorium and ordinance wording, but we leave it up to the towns on how to word them,” Canney said. The moratoriums provide “breathing room” so that towns can develop an aquaculture ordinance.

Canney noted that “the majority of the concern is Downeast,” and numerous other municipalities have been approached by the group, including Eastport and Lubec, which were not interested in pursuing a moratorium or ordinance. She points out that the foundation is targeting only large-scale aquaculture projects.

“We are not against owner/operated aquaculture that’s properly sited,” she said.

The foundation’s main concerns are both competition with fishermen for space and environmental effects of aquaculture. According to its website, Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage believes that “fishermen and marine harvesters are losing bottom and fishing space to large aquaculture leases.”

The website states, “We are working to ensure proper state regulations are in place to prevent a rapid, unplanned expansion of aquaculture in Maine. Conflicts are arising up and down the Maine coast for the lobstering, marine harvesters and boating communities. We must find a way to co‑exist without hurting the environment or fisheries that have been well managed and sustained for generations.”

Canney noted it’s possible for an aquaculture company to be able to lease 1,000 acres of state waters, since they can have up to 10 leases of up to 100 acres each.

The largest aquaculture company in the state, Cooke Aquaculture, has a total of 614 acres in leases, although some of that acreage is fallowed for rotational management. In North Carolina, companies can lease only five acres and have 10 lease sites for a total of 50 acres. And she says that an oyster farmer in Barnstable, Mass., said he could make $500,000 on a five-acre lease.

As for aquaculture’s limiting of harvesting bottom for fishermen, Canney says that fishermen “can’t go within 35 meters of mooring balls” at aquaculture sites, but Jeff Nichols, communications director for the DMR, says there are no conditions in regulation on boats operating within a specific distance from lease sites.

However, there are criteria on which lease decisions are made regarding a site’s interference with navigation and commercial and recreational fishing activity that apply to lease holders.

Debate arises in Machiasport

The site of one of the most recent flash points in the aquaculture debate has been Machiasport, where Cooke has one lease site and a processing facility. Jeff Davis, one of the selectmen, says that discussion about a moratorium has been ongoing for some time. While town officials had written one, it was “too ambiguous,” he says, so it was decided to use the wording provided by Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage.

The selectmen then approved a six-month moratorium, and an extension for that moratorium was brought by the selectmen to the town meeting last June, but it was tabled, as the planning board wanted to look at the wording.

The existing moratorium that the selectmen had approved then expired, so a public hearing was held on September 25 on renewing the moratorium. “We had wanted townspeople to have a say in it,” Davis said.

At the hearing there was a mix of opinions, he says, with support being voiced for the moratorium and Cooke Aquaculture representatives and employees seeing it “as an attack on them.”

Davis, who is a lobster fishermen, says fishermen don’t have all of the information they need about long-term effects of fish farming. He is concerned about nitrogen levels in the water and dead zones under salmon pens.

Speaking as a selectman, he also has liability concerns. Noting that a net reel owned by Cooke came lose in a storm and hit a lobster boat, he says it could instead have “wrecked our pier.” He hasn’t received answers from Cooke or its attorneys about liability coverage.

“My concern for the town is it could have put us out of business in a night,” he said. Noting the price of a lobster boat today, he said, “It could be a multi-million dollar loss in one storm.”

Concerns about the moratorium, though, were expressed by Frank Lank, the production manager for Cooke Aquaculture USA, in a letter to the selectmen submitted on September 27.

He noted the company employs over 100 people in Machiasport and pays over $35,000 a year in property taxes. He said a moratorium would have a substantial adverse impact on the town. In Eastport, he noted, Cooke is constructing a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) to produce lumpfish to combat sea lice at its salmon farms in an eco-friendly manner.

“This is precisely the type of innovative industrial-scale aquaculture development local communities should be encouraging as economic development opportunities.” He also noted that hybrid systems, with a mix of onshore-based facilities and marine-based sea cages, will be part of the company’s future, with plans for one such onshore RAS now under way in nearby Bayside, across from Calais.

Lank noted, “We are operating responsibly in Machiasport and across the county by taking a coordinated, thoughtful, science-based approach and going through all the appropriate licensing and permitting steps.”

On October 2 the selectmen voted to approve the moratorium for another six months, while changing the wording to exempt Cooke’s existing leases. Davis says the moratorium will provide time for the planning board to work on an ordinance that would then be voted on at a special town meeting.

Joel Richardson, vice president for public relations for Cooke Aquaculture, comments that he and other representatives from the company participated in the October 2 selectmen’s meeting and “found the discussion very worthwhile.

Lobstermen, residents and the selectmen expressed their support for Cooke’s employees and operations. The selectmen expressed their supportive position that Cooke would be grandfathered in and no jobs or operations would be impacted, given our long, positive track record in the community.”

Jurisdiction questions raised

As for the question of state versus municipal jurisdiction, the DMR recently reissued a statement on its position regarding town moratoriums on aquaculture leasing.

Kohl Kanwit, director of the Bureau of Public Health and Aquaculture, states that under Maine law the DMR has exclusive jurisdiction to lease state waters for aquaculture. Municipalities may have limited jurisdiction for sites in the intertidal zone but no authority to restrict aquaculture leasing in the state’s coastal waters.

In response, Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage solicited an opinion from attorney David Kallin of the law firm Drummond Woodsum that points out that the authority of the DMR to lease waters “does not preempt the authority of another entity to regulate the activity.

For example, a private landowner may have exclusive authority to lease the land it owns. This exclusive authority does not preempt the ability of local, state or federal regulations of that land.”

He added that “municipalities have broad home rule authority within their boundaries” that he says is not extinguished by the DMR’s authority to lease state waters.

Noting that the town of Machiasport has provided every access to the water for the aquaculture industry and receives only property taxes and employment, Davis says of the DMR’s position, “We do have some authority here. We do want to have a say in what happens in this town. They can threaten us all they want to, but it’s not going to do them any good.”

He added, “We will fight the state if we have to.”

Concerning the DMR’s role in leasing, Canney said, “They need to slow down the leasing process” and “communicate better with communities.”

As for working with municipalities, Kanwit of the DMR says in her letter that the department is developing an annual training focused on municipal participation in marine resource issues including aquaculture and planning to provide information on the leasing process at several state trainings and forums to “improve communication channels between towns and the department.”

The DMR hopes the initiatives “will help make engagement in the leasing and licensing process more approachable for municipalities.”

This story was originally published by the Quoddy Tides, and is republished here with permission.

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Edward French, Quoddy Tides

Edward French is the editor and publisher of The Quoddy Tides, a twice a month newspaper founded by his mother Winifred French in 1968. The Quoddy Tides, based in Eastport, is the most easterly newspaper published in the United States and covers eastern Washington County, Maine, and western Charlotte County, New Brunswick, including the Fundy Isles.
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