Thousands of Atlantic salmon swim in Cooke Aquaculture's 24 sea sites, penned areas where the company farms salmon, off the coast of Maine. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

In less than 10 minutes Monday night, the handful of voters at Cutler’s special town meeting passed a moratorium on industrial-scale aquaculture, halting any local approvals on large aquaculture projects for the next 180 days.

The small coastal town is one of a growing number of fishing communities Down East leery of fish farms that are looking to tighten their local regulations.

“Everybody [in town] is really on the same page,” Cutler’s town clerk Teresa Bragg said after the vote. “No one wants something in our harbor.”

Machiasport, Beals, Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro have all passed moratoriums similar to Cutler’s since last fall. Addison is supposed to vote on a moratorium next week and Jonesport recently received a citizen’s petition for a moratorium that’s expected to go before voters later this year.

The effort has largely been led by Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit that pitched a model moratorium to more than 10 towns across Washington and Hancock counties. Executive Director Crystal Canney said the recent town votes send a strong message to the state that local municipalities think there’s a need for more stringent rules on aquaculture.

“This is a chance for towns to put a stake in the ground on local control,” she said.

Some towns, including Hancock and Lubec, have decided against enacting a moratorium, and others, such as Deer Isle, felt there was no need for a moratorium because there were no pending large projects.

Protect Maine has been calling for a statewide conversation on aquaculture planning, and Canney fears that Maine could lose its coastal waters to large foreign-owned aquaculture companies such as American Aquafarms, which proposed a controversial 120-acre salmon farm for Frenchman Bay.

With gaining momentum Down East, the group now intends to get its model moratorium in front of more municipalities in southern Maine.

The moratorium in Cutler, and any potential regulations developed, could spell the end of a state plan to raise Atlantic salmon in net pens set in Cutler Harbor.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Bureau of Sea Run Fisheries and Habitat wanted to farm Atlantic salmon to help restore the species but ended up pulling the application in December after hearing concerns around navigation and impacts on fishing. At the time, the bureau said it was considering its future options. The bureau has not submitted a new application to the state yet.

Most of the moratoriums halt the siting, installation, construction operation and expansion of any industrial aquaculture development on the water. They also prevent town officials from processing permits and other paperwork for these large projects.

Jonesport’s proposed moratorium is by far the most wide reaching, though it hasn’t been placed on a warrant yet. If enacted, the moratorium would prohibit any commercial aquaculture development in Jonesport, either on land or in the water.

That could put Kingfish Maine, a planned land-based fish farm, in the crossfire.

The company is currently waiting on town approvals to build its facility in Jonesport after getting all the permits it needs from federal and state officials. Operations manager Megan Sorby hopes to break ground by early next year.

But a moratorium could dash those hopes, and Sorby said the effort is clearly designed to slow the company down.

“They’re goal is to delay these projects away,” she said.

To her, enforcing a moratorium and then crafting an ordinance would be redundant, as the town’s Planning Board already has the power to oversee development and taxpayers already pay the state to enforce regulations on companies like hers.

While municipalities do have some control on what happens on land, some towns and experts have questioned what authority municipalities even have to stop projects in the water, an area largely governed by the state.

Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, previously told the Bangor Daily News that towns have no authority to put a moratorium in place for aquafarms unless they have a land-based operation.

Similarly, DMR sent a letter in April to Gouldsboro to remind the town as it works on developing an aquaculture ordinance that the state has the exclusive right to lease coastal waters for aquaculture. Though the town can issue municipal aquaculture permits — a practice that is largely used for clammers on the local mudflats — any licensing program designed to regulate aquaculture in the water is preempted by state law, the department wrote.