Troubled American Aquafarms project spawns bill limiting aquaculture in Maine

Published on
May 30, 2023
Patrick Keliher giving testimony on LD 1951 during a Maine Committee on Marine Resources hearing.

Legislators in the U.S. state of Maine have proposed a new bill that would put density limits on salmon farms in state waters, a move made in response to the troubled American Aquafarms project. 

The new bill, LD 1951, “An Act Regarding Marine Finfish Aquaculture,” would amend state law to add maximum stocking densities for salmon net pens located in state waters. The state’s Committee on Marine Resources unanimously voted ought-to-pass on 25 May on an amended version of the bill requiring salmonid net pens to remain under a density of 30 kilograms per cubic meter.

Maine State Senator Nicole Grohoski, who sponsored the bill, directly cited the troubled American Aquafarms proposal as a reason the state needs to update its laws regarding salmonid aquaculture in the state.

“Many people I represent are concerned that our current regulatory structure for ocean pen finfish aquaculture has not been modernized to appropriately regulate the impact of these fish farms on our shared coastal resources,” she said during a committee hearing on the subject. “The stocking density limit proposed by this legislation is not extreme, it is in line with the upper limits required or recommended by other governments around the world.”

American Aquafarms was proposing a closed net-pen salmon aquaculture operation with a production capacity of up to 30,000 metric tons annually. The project, which was to be located in Frenchman Bay, located of the coast of Gouldsboro, Maine, faced intense local opposition which cited the project’s close proximity to Acadia National Park. The town of Gouldsboro approved a moratorium on large-scale fish farms, and several local groups stridently opposed the project

American Aquafarms ultimately lost a bid for an essential lease in the state, and its former CEO, Keith Decker, resigned and put the company’s processing plant up for auction in early May.

During the committee hearing, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher revealed that American Aquafarms’ original proposal was shut down for a number of reasons, not just a technicality related to its sourcing of salmon eggs from AquaBounty, which is known for its pioneering work creating and producing genetically engineered salmon.

“This was NOT due to a technicality, as some would have you believe. It was denied due to many failures of the applicant, including failing to demonstrate a qualified genetic source, and because the hatchery could not meet our standard in law or rule, and because samples sent to DMR were improperly cared for,” Keliher said.

Keliher added, “so it is clear to this committee and to the public,” that even if American Aquafarms had managed to get through the initial application process, there was no way it was going to be permitted in the state."

"I can tell you in no uncertain terms that even if American Aquafarms’ application had been deemed complete, these leases would have never been issued,” Keliher said. “Let me state this again for the record: I would never have approved this application.”

Despite the fact that the application had no chance, the applicant still had a right to due process – and that process is what led to the multi-year fight over the project, Keliher said. A limit on aquaculture density would not deny lease applications, he said, but could prevent operations of a certain scale “from ever coming forward.” 

Grohoski said that preventing similar large-sized proposals in the future one goal of the new bill. She said American Aquafarms reapply if it wasn't limited by law from proposing such a large development.

The bill is intended not to ... 

Photo courtesy of the Maine Legislature Committee on Marine Resources

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