Aquaculture North America

Several Maine bills targeting aquaculture fail

August 30, 2023
By Matt Jones

One bill passes after being made less intensive

Sebastian Belle, Maine Aquaculture Association

During this year’s session of Maine’s legislature, the body saw a variety of bills proposed that were intended to curtail the aquaculture industry. Of these bills, only one passed – “An Act Regarding Marine Finfish Aquaculture” – though only after the provisions of the bill were made less intensive. Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA), notes that these bills were all in response to the controversial and now-stalled American Aquafarms project but were aimed at the aquaculture industry in general.

“It was a very small but very vocal group of people, to the point where they organized local ‘friends of…’ organizations,” said Belle. “And then at least one of those residents was able to bankroll Oceania to come in from outside the state and submit the bill that did pass, although when the bill passed it was very different than the original bill that was proposed.”

As described by one of the company’s webpages, American Aquafarms was intended to encompass ‘a hatchery, fish farm facilities, and a state-of-the-art processing plant in coastal Maine. The company is leveraging Maine’s deepwater assets with next-generation eco-friendly aquaculture technology.’ The US$300 million project aimed to raise 66 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually at two sites in Frenchman Bay.

Those assurances of eco-friendly technology were not enough to assuage public concerns about the project. Residents questioned whether the company was appropriately mindful of environmental issues and local lobstermen were upset that the project was set to take place in popular lobster grounds, known locally as ‘The Hop.’


“There’s nothing to gain from this,” a lobsterman named Frank Hammond told a local media outlet, The Ellsworth American. “The fishermen will never go for it if they’re going to raise fish in The Hop.”

In 2022, after much public acrimony, Maine’s Department of Marine Resources effectively cancelled the American Aquafarms application by denying access to their egg sources. The company filed a lawsuit against the state but eventually withdrew it. However, even with that project stalled or possibly dead, the controversy was then used as the basis to push for a variety of bills that took aim at the wider aquaculture industry.

“The most interesting thing about all of this is that the American Aquafarms proposal under existing Maine state law would never have been given a permit,” says Belle. “They violated a number of criteria and got very bad advice as part of their application process.”

“A few of the bills which failed included An Act to Protect Maine Fisheries from the Effects of Industrial Recirculating Aquaculture Operations”, and “An Act to Establish Coastal Waters and Submerged Lands Regional Planning Commissions”. “An Act Regarding Marine Finfish Aquaculture” passed but only after its recommendation – that salmonids could only be stocked up to 22 kilograms per cubic meter – was increased to a 30-kilogram limit. Had the bills passed (or passed in their original form) it would have wreaked havoc on the industry.

“It would have shut the industry down, absolutely,” says Belle. “It would have impacted existing operations and it would have essentially stopped all new applications in the sector. It would have been devastating for sure. To be very blunt about it, that was exactly the intent of the opponents. The opening sentence of testimony of all of the opponents is ‘we’re not against aquaculture,’ but then they launch into all the things they want to change and they know very well that if those things go through it will essentially shut down the sector, it will take jobs away from people, it will take choices away from coastal communities.”

Belle notes that he’s been in the seafood business for over 40 years, most of that time in aquaculture. In his experience about every five years a project proposal will be controversial enough that opponents will go to the legislature and advocate for changes to the system because they don’t believe the system will deliver the result they want. 

“They try to make an end run around the existing system and change the laws and regulations so that it guarantees a ‘no’ vote for that specific proposal,” said Belle. “So this is not a new phenomenon. And it’s not unique to finfish aquaculture – five years ago we had an oyster proposal and that was the genesis of another group of people opposing aquaculture.”

Belle says a significant reason why the bills failed in their goal to disrupt the industry was due to the years of work that he and his association have put in on education and outreach. The MAA conduct legislative tours, have farmers visit their legislators, and educate legislators about the industry. Through their efforts, Maine’s legislature has a firm understanding of the industry and its benefits.

“Speaking globally, not just in Maine, I think we have done a relatively poor job telling our story, both to the public and to elected officials,” says Belle. “Here in Maine, we have worked very, very hard for 25 years to educate people about what aquaculture is, what it isn’t, and why it’s so important to the state’s working waterfront. It’s one of the few ways that young people can stay in those communities and continue to work and build businesses because the traditional fishing sectors are closed fisheries, so it’s very difficult to get into those fisheries. The only way for young people to continue their family’s maritime heritage is aquaculture.”

Among the companies celebrating the outcome of this legislative session was Cooke Aquaculture USA. Spokesperson Claire Ryan says that the company appreciates that the legislature and the governor took a consultative and science-based approach to finalize the bill regarding salmonid stocking densities.

“Previous bills at 22 kilograms per cubic meter presented to The Maine Marine Resources Committee would have negatively impacted rural coastal jobs and restricted a producer’s ability to introduce new technologies and innovative equipment which otherwise enables aquaculture farms to operate even more sustainably,” said Ryan.

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