A new bill introduced by lawmakers in Maine seeking to place strict new regulations on land-based aquaculture facilities is drawing opposition from major aquaculture companies who fear it has far-reaching consequences.

Representatives from Cooke and Skretting weighed in on the bill during a March 16 hearing, emphasizing it is singling out aquaculture for meeting impossible feed standards and is spreading misinformation about the industry.

Sponsored by Democratic Maine Senator Pinny Beebe-Center, provisions in the proposed legislation include requiring that industrial recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) operations established on or after Jan. 1, 2024 not "contribute to the degradation of water quality or air quality or increase overall carbon emissions," in the state.

It also focuses on cutting use of any wild marine organisms for feed in the facilities.

Greg Lambert, a freshwater production manager for Cooke Aquaculture USA and a Maine resident, testified the bill's requirement that land-based aquaculture operations be free from any fishmeal is not an industry standard that is currently achievable.

"To replace the components in fish feed sources from the marine environment, there needs to be an exponential increase in the amount of alternative proteins produced," Cooke's Lambert said. "This may be possible in 10 or 20 years, but not now. It is not obtainable at the required scale."

Cooke employs approximately 200 people in four Maine counties for its netpen operations.

Lambert added the bill appears to single out Maine aquaculture in its requirement that its production is carbon neutral, something he said no other food production industry in the state is required to meet.

"Nor can I name another form of animal production that prohibits ingredients that are essential to proper nutrition," he said. "Are we going to mandate cows not eat any grain or grass in the future? No, of course not."

David Seeley, a general manager for aquaculture feed giant Skretting, also submitted testimony stating the bill is spreading misinformation about the aquaculture industry.

He noted there is no evidence to suggest the use of wild-capture marine ingredients is impacting Maine's fisheries, and that establishing the term "free of" in the bill as it relates to contaminants would be an "arbitrary standard," unlike standards established by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Jeff Auger, who works for business growth and acquisitions at Maine's Atlantic Aqua Farms, said the bill if passed, could severely impact shellfish hatcheries in the state that use recirculating aquaculture practices that could be prohibited under the bill.

"Hatcheries are the lifeblood of our industry. Without oyster seed no farmer in Maine or on the East Coast can effectively grow shellfish or run a business," he said.

The bill is receiving strong support from the environmental NGO Sierra Club, whose Maine chapter submitted testimony "representing over 22,000 supporters and members statewide."

Since 2019, the group has expressed opposition to major land-based salmon farming projects in Maine, including those of Whole Oceans, Kingfish Maine and Nordic Aquafarms, citing they are "investor-driven" and are "yet another iteration of the extraction industry in Maine."

Matt Cannon, Sierra Club Maine's state energy and conservation director, said in his testimony that while "aquaculture in general is a tremendous opportunity" for Maine, the state's "existing regulations have not caught up with the development process," and threaten Maine's coastal communities and wildlife "if left unchecked."

He pointed to land-based producers such as Nova Scotia's Sustainable Blue and Wisconsin's Superior Fresh as two examples of facilities incorporating "zero effluent" technology as examples of how companies in Maine could meet the bill's requirements right now.

The state legislature's Marine Resources Committee will hold another work session for the bill on March 23.