In a July 2021 file photo, Atlantic salmon swim in one of Cooke Aquaculture's 24 sea sites, penned areas where the company farms salmon, off the coast of Maine. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

A small Hancock County town could join a growing number of municipalities along Maine’s coast that have enacted moratoriums on large-scale aquaculture operations.

Penobscot residents will vote at a special town meeting Tuesday whether to slow so-called industrial aquaculture projects to give the municipality time to come up with local regulations. If it is approved, Penobscot would join at least seven Down East towns that have enacted similar moratoriums and one that passed an ordinance that requires special approvals from the local planning board.

The push for tighter controls around aquaculture, particularly fish farms, has been led by the Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation. The nonprofit has visited towns up and down the coast and presented the moratorium as an option.

        

So far, Cutler, Winter Harbor, Machiasport, Beals, Addison, Roque Bluffs and Gouldsboro have all passed moratoriums. Cutler was also the first in the state to pass a local aquaculture ordinance in November’s election.

The ordinance prohibits any aquaculture project that’s larger than a half acre, unless the proponents can prove the project doesn’t hurt the scenic views and they have the technical and financial means to complete a project.

Most towns moved toward the moratorium after American Aquafarms proposed a massive salmon farm in Frenchman Bay. That project, which has been met with widespread opposition, is currently in limbo after its application was rejected by the state in April.

Cutler grew concerned about aquaculture projects when the state proposed rearing salmon in net pens in the town’s harbor. That project   was withdrawn last year.

Penobscot does not have any aquaculture projects, large or otherwise, in its waters, though there are several in neighboring Hancock County towns. But there is concern among some that a large project could move in one day. The moratorium would halt any projects that are larger than five acres for the next 180 days.

“This is just the next step to protect the marine waters of Penobscot now that aquaculture has become an industry and not just a way for Mom and Pop to make a few extra dollars,” Bailey Bowden, the chairman of the town’s alewife committee, explained to voters earlier this month.

Crystal Canney, the head of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, said her group raised the idea of the moratorium to Penobscot and that Bowden had been leading the local charge.

The moratoriums have failed in other towns, including one put forward by a citizen initiative recently in Jonesport. That town’s Planning Board approved a land-based yellowtail farm last week and has largely welcomed the development with open arms.

Other towns have questioned if they even have the ability to govern aquaculture, as the leasing process for water-based projects falls under the state’s jurisdiction.