The Maine Department of Marine Resources has withdrawn its application for a lease to raise Atlantic salmon off Cutler. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has withdrawn its application for a lease to raise Atlantic salmon off Cutler as part of an effort to restore the species.

After a three hour meeting with the town’s Select Board earlier this month, the department’s Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat decided to pull the aquaculture application after learning that the community still had outstanding concerns, largely around the potential impacts to fishing and navigation. They had proposed four floating net pens for an area west of Little River Island in Cutler Harbor.

The bureau is considering its options for the future, according to department spokesperson Jeff Nichols.

“DMR remains committed to this project and will continue to pursue the use of conservation aquaculture to raise these fish to adult size in the marine environment,” he said.

The plan was aimed to support the restoration of endangered Atlantic salmon by rearing the fish in safety of net pens until they reached adult size. They would then be released in Maine rivers for spawning. Smolts would be sourced from either a federal hatchery or wild-captured in rivers and then raised in the pens for up to two and a half years.

Having the salmon grow to maturity in the pens allows them to dodge the high mortality rate in the ocean, according to Nichols. For every 1,000 smolts that leave the Penobscot River for the ocean, only five will survive and return to the river as adults, he said.

Cooke Aquaculture, the only active net pen salmon grower in Maine, was going to care for the fish at the site.

As part of a 2019 consent agreement reached with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the company paid $156,213 toward the $1.2 million salmon restoration effort following multiple violations at fish pen sites it operates in Washington and Hancock counties.

The DEP cited Cooke for having too many fish in one or more pens, failing to conduct environmental sampling and failing to follow a variety of clerical procedures.

Teresa Bragg, Cutler’s town clerk and administrative assistant, said the process has been going on for about three years and the community still has several concerns about the DMR-led project. Residents have raised questions about the environmental impact of raising the fish there and worried about the nearby lobster traps and shellfishing area.

“We just felt like there were a lot of questions brought to light,” she said.  

Some net pen aquaculture has come up against major pushback this year. American Aquafarms proposal for a farm in Frenchman Bay has drawn the ire of residents and organizations from across the region and people have argued against renewing the leases for Cooke’s sites off Frenchboro after a fish die-off this summer.