AUGUSTA — With the recent growth of the aquaculture industry in the state, the Department of Marine Resources had a backlog of aquaculture lease applications even before the pandemic put a hold on the public hearings that are required for most applications.
“The majority of the aquaculture program’s work is being conducted as usual, albeit remotely,” spokesperson Jeff Nichols said last week. “Applications are still being reviewed for completeness, pre-application meetings are being held remotely, site reports are being written, public notices are being processed, and lease and license decisions, where we are able, are being written.”
But scoping sessions and public hearings were postponed and field work was suspended in mid-March, Nichols said.
“Beginning April 30, field work that allows for staff to remain socially distant resumed. Scoping sessions and public hearings remain on hold.
“As part of the staged plan to reopen Maine, restrictions on public gatherings are slowly being lifted, but at this point we don’t have a specific date for when scoping sessions or public hearings will resume.”
The department’s staff is exploring alternative ways to hold these meetings, ensuring there will still be “meaningful opportunities for interested persons to participate.”
That participation is especially vital in public hearings, which are legal “adjudicatory” proceedings with specific requirements for introducing evidence, testimony and cross-examination.
“Making that happen under the current constraints around public gatherings, that’s a work in process,” Nichols said.
Because of those additional requirements, scoping sessions will likely resume first, in a staggered fashion. Hearings that were postponed due to COVID-19 will be prioritized.
“We recognize this is an extremely challenging time for all and are acutely aware of the impact this pandemic is having on small businesses,” a statement from the department said. Please do not hesitate to contact members of the aquaculture program with suggestions or to share concerns. We encourage growers experiencing space constraints due to COVID-19 to contact us directly to discuss specific circumstances and strategies we might employ to help alleviate this issue. If you are unsure who to contact, please use the aquaculture-specific email account, [email protected].”
One local application was approved in late May, an experimental lease of a 3.4-acre site in Frenchman Bay north of Thomas Island to Mussel Bound Farms for mussel spat/seed production.
The lease site is not far from other aquaculture sites held by Bar Harbor Oyster Co., Acadia Aqua Farms and others. A public hearing was not required for the three-year, experimental lease. Notice of the application was published in July of 2019; DMR did not receive any request for a public hearing during the comment period and none was held.
Mussel Bound plans to culture blue mussels using three circular fish pens known as polar circles, each 70 meters in circumference, according to the application prepared by Erick Spencer Swanson.
“External nets affixed to the outside of each polar circle protect the mussel spat that settle on the dropper lines from predators,” the lease decision states. The cages will be towed to Bartlett’s Landing in the winter.
Maine Coast Heritage Trust owns Thomas Island, a popular spot for kayaking, picnicking and camping. Since the lease does not interfere with access to the northeastern shore of the island, the easiest access point for these uses, DMR determined the lease would not unduly affect them.