The state recently rejected a petition from animal welfare groups that seeks to require the Maine Department of Agriculture to more aggressively enforce animal cruelty laws at aquaculture facilities.

The Citizen Petition for Rulemaking, which was signed by 152 registered Maine voters, calls on the state agriculture department to adopt new rules regarding inspections and enforcement of animal cruelty laws for fish being grown by commercial companies.

The petition comes when Maine is poised to see a rapid expansion in the number of large, industrial-scale aquaculture facilities. Plans for fish farms that grow salmon and yellowtail are in the works for Belfast, Bucksport and Jonesport.

Those facilities, which are at various phases in the approval process, will join Canadian-based Cooke Aquaculture, which grows thousands of fish in net pens off the Maine coast and runs a hatchery in Bingham. 

In addition, American Aquafarms has said it plans to resubmit a proposal for a closed net pen salmon system in Frenchman Bay with a processing plant in Gouldsboro.

The petition, submitted Aug. 1 by Washington D.C.-based Animal Outlook, claims that there’s a “troubling vacuum in oversight” by the state and describes fish as “sentient, conscious, capable of pain, suffering and logical thought.”

But in a letter issued earlier this month, Ronda Steciuk, director of the state’s Animal Welfare Program, rejected the petition, “calling it incomplete and defective.”

The major objection outlined in the letter says Animal Outlook failed to provide the text for the rule it wants the state to adopt.

In response, Animal Outlook said the state erred in rejecting the petition and that it believes the state still has a responsibility to begin rulemaking by Oct. 3. 

The group says it doesn’t make sense to put the burden on “laypeople” to write state agency rules.

“Animal Outlook is prepared to bring the force of clear state law to bear if Maine’s Animal Welfare Program continues insisting that it is above the law and fish should not be protected from cruelty,” Piper Hoffman, senior director of Legal Advocacy for Animal Outlook, said in a statement.

Animal Outlook, formerly known as Compassion Over Killing, made headlines in 2019 when it secretly filmed staffers inside Cooke’s Bingham hatchery that showed salmon being treated inhumanely. The company acknowledged the incidents and vowed to make improvements.

State animal welfare officials investigated the incident and concluded that Cooke had changed its protocols. The former head of the state’s animal welfare program also recommended that another state agency — possibly marine resources or inland fisheries and wildlife — take over aquaculture facility inspections.