Cooke Aquaculture has 24 sea sites, penned areas where the company farms salmon, off the coast of Maine. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

A Maine nonprofit has been visiting towns up and down the coast to pitch a moratorium on industrial scale aquaculture farms. But so far, none have been enacted though some towns are considering the measure.

Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation has talked to town officials in more than 10 communities, largely in Hancock and Washington counties, to see if they are interested in pumping the brakes on finfish and other large-scale aquaculture applications in order to give them time to draw up stronger local regulations.

“I absolutely think that every coastal community in Maine needs to have a conversation about this,” said Crystal Canney, a Portland-based consultant and the nonprofit’s executive director.

Unless more restrictions are enacted, Canney fears the state will lose its coastal waters to large, foreign-owned aquaculture companies like American Aquafarms, which has proposed a 120-acre salmon farm in Frenchman Bay. These types of businesses could hurt the environment and the fishermen who have made their living on the water for generations, she argued.

As it’s drawn up, the moratorium being floated would halt the siting, installation, construction, operation and expansion of any industrial aquaculture development for up to 180 days, giving towns breathing room to set up local regulations and send a message that they want the issue to be looked at from a statewide perspective, according to Canney.

Gouldsboro, in an attempt to delay American Aquafarms, voted in November to enact a six-month moratorium on large-scale aquaculture operations. But that moratorium applies to any approvals and permits the company would need to get from the town to develop its land-based facilities, not the company’s efforts to grow salmon in the waters of Frenchman Bay.

The foundation’s moratorium, if adopted, would apply to operations on the water, according to officials at the nonprofit. It’s not clear if towns have that authority though, experts say.

Under its model moratorium, industrial scale aquaculture is defined as finfish or suspended culture farms that take up more than five acres, though towns could change the language as they please. Already existing operations would be exempted.

So far, Canney has talked to Steuben, Sullivan, Hancock, Stonington, Deer Isle, Bar Harbor, Lubec, Cutler, and four towns in Cumberland and York counties. No towns have enacted the moratorium but most are considering what they can or should do.

Steuben, which received a presentation on the issue this week, formed a committee to talk about the idea.

“The consensus was we don’t want to see a large-scale operation going in and take up a lot of fishing ground,” said Julie Ginn, the town clerk.

The town is considering a moratorium, though not necessarily the one proposed by the foundation.

Canney said the model moratorium is just a starting point to get the conversation going and felt that every town should tailor their regulations to their own needs.

Other towns aren’t as interested though.

Lubec, for instance, voted to not pursue it.

“They support aquaculture here,” said Renee Gray, the town administrator. “We welcome it with open arms.”

Sullivan, a small coastal town in Hancock County, discussed the option, but Select Board member Mike Pinkham was unsure if the town would take any action.

“The amount of area that we have waterwise where anybody could put a large-scale aquaculture lease is very small,” he said.

For others, it’s a question of whether they have the authority to stop projects situated on the water.

Stonington reached out to the Maine Municipal Association on the moratorium and they had some concerns about some of the assertions made by the foundation on what towns could regulate, said Kathleen Billings, the town manager. They are still waiting for answers.

Aquaculture lease applications for ventures set on the water are handled by the state. While towns can submit comments and apply for elevated legal status in proceedings, they don’t have the ability to veto a lease being considered by the state.

Unless a prospective farm has a land-based operation, towns have no authority to put a moratorium in place for aquafarms, according to Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. He argued the current avenues available to municipalities would give them better protection than the foundation’s model moratorium.

“I don’t think it achieves what [Canney] is saying it’s going to achieve,” Belle said.

The foundation disagrees, saying that there are no state laws in the books that expressly prohibits municipalities from enacting rules on aquaculture.

The nonprofit plans to continue to visit more coastal towns across Maine on the issue.

“We’ll keep expanding the effort,” Canney said.