The 15-acre aquaculture lease held by Maine Cultured Mussels off Hardwood Island in Tremont, shaded in gray. The blue rectangle labeled “Fish Pens” is the portion that was eliminated in 2005 from the lease, which was originally granted in 1993 for salmon in pens. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DMR

Hearing on mussel farm lease to resume

BASS HARBOR — The Maine Department of Marine Resources will reconvene a public hearing about a proposed 10-year lease renewal of 15 acres of coastal waters for mussel culture off Hardwood Island.

The purpose will be to gather testimony from lessors Maine Cultured Mussels, the DMR and interveners regarding the clean-up of dropped nets in the water.

The initial meeting was held last August. At that session, the Friends of Blue Hill Bay voiced opposition to the renewal, citing concerns about the applicant and its owner Erick Swanson’s ability to keep the waters free of garbage and to make rental payments on time.

The lease was originally granted in 1993 to Swanson to operate a salmon farm above 25 acres of bottom. The lease was amended in 2005 to lessen the size of the area to 15 acres and switch to a submerged long-line mussel farm. In November 2012, Swanson applied for a renewal of the lease that was set to expire the following March, but a backlog at the DMR delayed consideration of the renewal until last year.

“I found out they have to renew the lease before they can transfer it,” Swanson said last year. “It took two years because of the backlog. But I don’t fault the DMR.”

Around the same time Swanson applied for a renewal, Maine Cultured Mussels filed for bankruptcy. The capital assets of the business were sold to the Ipswich Shellfish Co., but the lease was supposed to be transferred to Swanson’s sons, Reid and Erick Spencer, operating as Mussel Bound Farms Inc. They had their own equipment for a mussel farming operation.

However, a lease must be renewed before it can be transferred, according to DMR regulations.

The DMR collects fees and rent on all aquaculture leases in the state. For a new lease, the DMR asks for input from stakeholders in the community – municipality officials, harbormasters, residents – before it grants the lease to the applicant. A renewal requires only that the leaseholder show they have followed the terms of the lease and that renewal is in the best interest of the state. In both cases, public hearings are held, and the DMR commissioner makes the final decision whether to approve or deny.

On occasion, a group can seek intervener status and become a legal party to the lease-granting process. In Swanson’s case, the Friends of Blue Hill Bay are interveners.

Friends of Blue Hill Bay have accused Swanson of breaching the lease multiple times, saying that he failed to mark the area with the U.S. Coast Guard and that rental payments were sent in late.

“They feel strongly that Swanson is not a responsible operator,” said Sally Mills, the lawyer representing the Friends of Blue Hill Bay in the proceedings last year.

Last June, before the initial meeting on the lease renewal, the DMR found two plastic nets and a tire in the water on the lease site. The nets that are the subject of the reconvening were found after the initial meeting held in August.

Friends of Blue Hill Bay have said in the past that they “would strongly consider the possibility of an appeal” if Swanson’s lease is renewed. Swanson has had several DMR lease decisions appealed in the past, but has won all of those cases in court.

The reconvening is scheduled for June 29 at 6 p.m. at the Tremont Town Hall. The DMR is not taking additional written comments or new intervener applications. If the meeting is postponed or cannot be concluded at a reasonable hour, it will be continued on July 20 at 6 p.m.

Questions about the hearing can be directed to Diantha C. Robinson, aquaculture hearing officer at the DMR at 624-6567 or by emailing both [email protected] and [email protected].

Liz Graves contributed reporting to this article.

Matt Mitterhoff

Matt Mitterhoff

Matt Mitterhoff

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