TREMONT — The lease Erick Swanson holds on the 15-acre mussel farm he and his family operate off Hardwood Island expired in 2013, but his application to the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to renew it has taken more than three years.
The farm is operated by Swanson’s sons Reid and Erick Spencer, doing business as Mussel Bound Farms. The lease must be renewed before it can be transferred to them.
Environmental group Friends of Blue Hill Bay (FOBHB) has raised questions about the operation. They filed to become an intervenor in the lease renewal. “They feel strongly that Swanson is not a responsible operator,” Sally Mills, an attorney for the group, said after an initial hearing on the renewal last fall.
“For the slightest infraction, FOBHB wants to put people out of business,” Swanson said at a reconvened hearing on the renewal application June 29 at the Tremont Town Hall.
DMR aquaculture coordinator Jon Lewis said the reconvened hearing was planned because there were major updates to the application. “There was a great amount of testimony that hadn’t really been digested,” he said.
One issue was marine debris on the ocean floor under the lease site. In June of 2015, Lewis said, the DMR used an underwater remote-operated vehicle to “look around the farm.”
The visibility was poor, Lewis said, but they saw two sections of plastic net and a tire.
Swanson made several efforts to retrieve the nets with grappling hooks, he said. Early this year, he hired Ed Monat to dive for the nets. It took several months for the right combination of dead low water during daylight hours, good weather and Monat’s availability, he said. Monat dove twice and retrieved a piece of net on one of his trips.
“Ed’s very good,” Swanson said. “No one else could do that, not at that depth. If Diver Ed couldn’t find (the other net), and we couldn’t grapple it, it ain’t there.”
Lewis said Swanson kept him apprised of his efforts. “Every time he tried something and it didn’t work, I said, ‘Good enough. If that’s the stance, the commissioner will make a decision (on the application),’ and he said, ‘No, wait, let me try something else.’
“It’s very easy to say it’s gone, it drifted off and away – which is of course no better,” Lewis said. “He also made attempts to say it belonged to previous owners of the farm so it wasn’t his responsibility.”
The edges of the lease are marked with buoys to help mariners steer clear of the farm. The location, size and color of those markers have been points of contention.
An issue with an outdated GPS mapping system meant that the lease shows up on Coast Guard charts more than 100 feet to the west of where it actually sits.
“The DMR marking requirements have been met, and the Coast Guard requirements have been met,” Lewis said. “The two should be congruent, but they’re not. They’re looking at the same sheet of music but playing different notes.”
Swanson said he replaced the small, yellow buoys he originally placed at the corners of his lease with larger, blue ones. “We got feedback that we needed something distinctive and bigger,” he said. “Then we heard that they had to be yellow. So right after the hearing last year, we painted them yellow.”
The DMR operates the aquaculture lease system and collects fees and rent on the lease from the operation. For a new lease, input is collected from stakeholders including the municipality, harbormaster, nearby shorefront landowners and other interested parties about the proposed aquaculture operation. A renewal only requires that the leaseholder apply in time to renew, that they’ve complied with the lease terms and that renewal is in the best interest of the state. In both cases, the DMR holds a public hearing. The decision to approve or deny an application rests with the DMR commissioner.
Hearing officer Diantha Robinson said the applicant and intervenors have until July 15 at 5 p.m. to submit written closing arguments.
“They don’t need to be in ‘legal-ese’ if you’re not a lawyer, they just need to be clear,” she said. These statements need to be copied to all parties in the process. Any written rebuttals to those statements will be due July 29.
The DMR is not taking any additional public comment.