A petition filed by animal welfare groups seeks to require state officials to more aggressively enforce animal cruelty laws at aquaculture facilities, saying that a “troubling vacuum in oversight exists” at the state level.

“Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that fish are sentient, conscious, capable of pain, suffering and logical thought,” the state does not provide proper oversight of how fish are raised and treated in aquaculture facilities, according to a 32-page petition filed Aug. 1 by the groups, only two of which are Maine-based.

The lead organization behind the petition is Animal Outlook, a Washington-D.C. based group formerly known as Compassion Over Killing. In a Thursday interview, Animal Outlook Executive Director Cheryl Leahy said the petition calls on the Animal Welfare Program at the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry to put in place “basic guardrails” to regulate how fish are treated.

“I hope they understand the scope and nature of the problem of mistreatment of animals and the lack of transparency and accountability that exists,” she said.

Agriculture department spokesman Jim Britt said via email that the department has received the petition and is reviewing it, but that he could not comment further at this time.

Adding new rules now is particularly important because aquaculture operations are on the verge of a rapid expansion, with four industrial-scale farms looking to locate here, Leahy said. 

One of the groups opposed to a land-based salmon farm in Belfast, Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, signed the petition as did the Maine Seaweed Exchange, a nonprofit working to develop a seaweed aquaculture industry in the state.

“In Maine and across the globe, aquaculture is a booming industry, meaning that more and more aquatic animals are subjected to life in industrial aquaculture facilities,” the petition reads.

Though animal cruelty investigations fall to the agriculture department, oversight and approval of aquaculture facilities is the responsibility of the Department of Marine Resources and Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The largest currently operating aquaculture company in Maine is Cooke Aquaculture of Canada, which grows thousands of salmon in net pen cages off the coast of Maine.

Compassion Over Killing made headlines in Maine in 2019 when they secretly filmed a video inside a Cooke Aquaculture hatchery in Bingham that showed salmon being “slammed, stomped, violently thrown and left in buckets to painfully suffocate and die,” according to the group. 

In response, Cooke Aquaculture CEO Glenn Cooke released a statement acknowledging that “it appears that unacceptable fish handling incidents have occurred at the Bingham hatchery.”

“I am disappointed and deeply saddened by what I saw today,” Cooke said in the Oct. 7, 2019 statement. “As a family company, we place animal welfare high in our operating standards and endeavor to raise our animals with optimal care and consideration of best practice.”

The statement went on to say that the company would make improvements to “ensure this will not happen again.”

Following an investigation, a report issued by the state agriculture department later that month concluded that the company made changes to protocols to improve the handling of the fish.

“It is my recommendation that another state agency that specializes in aquatic animals look into developing oversight in animal care at this type of Aquaculture facility to ensure proper compliance with (best management practices) in the future,” Liam Hughes, director of animal welfare, wrote in the report. “One of the biggest challenges to this investigation was the lack of experience with this species and type of aquaculture.”

Hughes recommended that the marine resources and inland fisheries and wildlife departments could conduct inspections at aquaculture facilities to ward off future complaints.

The petitioners are using a process in which 150 Maine registered voters can ask a state agency to write new rules to address a particular concern. In this instance, the “citizen petition for rulemaking” calls on the state to designate the Animal Welfare Program as the agency responsible for investigating reports of animal cruelty at aquaculture facilities and require it to write rules to establish best management practices.

Two large-scale fish farms have been approved in Maine in recent years, with Nordic Aquafarms planning to build a land-based salmon farm in Belfast and with Whole Oceans planning to build a similar facility in Bucksport. In Jonesport, Kingfish Maine needs only local planning board approval — after receiving state and federal permits — for a land-based farm to grow yellowtail kingfish.

And just recently, American Aquafarms said it plans to reapply for state permits to build an in-water closed net pen system in Frenchman Bay near Bar Harbor with a processing plant in Gouldsboro. Earlier this year, the state rejected the company’s first application, saying it failed to identify an acceptable egg source.