TREMONT — Fewer than 20 people were present last Wednesday for a hearing on the renewal of Erick Swanson’s aquaculture lease of 15 acres off Hardwood Island here, but some of those strongly opposed the renewal. Don Ely, president of Friends of Blue Hill Bay, and Sally Mills, an Ellsworth attorney representing the group, both presented opposition to the renewal.
The lease was originally granted in 1993 to operate a salmon farm. In 2005, the Department of Marine Resources approved reducing the lease, operated jointly by Swanson and a family venture, Maine Cultured Mussels, from 25 acres to 15 acres and a switch to a submerged long-line mussel farm. The lease was set to expire in March 2013. Swanson applied for the renewal in November of 2012, but a backlog at the DMR delayed the hearing until this year.
Around the same time, Swanson also applied to transfer the lease to his sons, Reid and Erick Spencer, doing business as Mussel Bound Farms Inc.
“I found out they have to renew the lease before they can transfer it,” Swanson said. “It took two years because of the backlog, but I don’t fault the DMR. They do a thorough job.”
At about the same time, Swanson went through a foreclosure on the business. Subsequently, the creditor sold the physical assets of the operation, but not the lease, to the Ipswich Shellfish Co. Last year, Swanson and his wife were each granted a discharge in bankruptcy. His sons already had their own equipment to replace the assets that went to Ipswich.
“Ipswich Shellfish wants to help us out with the finances while we’re getting this turned around. Maine Cultured Mussels will go away,” Swanson said. “Mussel Bound Farms is doing well, they’ve got five employees including me, and Ipswich can sell 3,000 pounds of our mussels a week.
“Our family business has been there for going on 23 years. We’ve succeeded in turning it around through some difficult times. Reid and Spencer like the business, and they’ll do a great job of it.”
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 and the decision to approve or deny an application rests with the DMR commissioner.
Some groups seek “intervenor” status, meaning they become a legal party to the proceedings, DMR aquaculture hearing officer Diantha Robinson said. An intervenor “must be copied on all correspondence between the DMR and all other parties, including the applicant, and is given a 10-day period to review and comment on the proposed decision,” she said. “Intervenors get a seat at the table, and they often present witnesses and evidence. A member of the public can testify and present exhibits (subject to control of the proceedings by the hearing officer), but only intervenors get copied on things and can comment on the proposed decision.” Friends of Blue Hill Bay is an intervenor in this case.
Mills and Ely argued Swanson had not complied with the existing lease and should not be granted a renewal.
Friends of Blue Hill Bay is not opposed to all aquaculture in the bay, Mills said Monday.
“They are very supportive of folks like Evan Young,” who operates a shellfish lease near the Swanson lease site, “because they’re responsible stewards. But they feel strongly that Swanson is not a responsible operator.”
Friend of Blue Hill Bay identified multiple breaches of the lease agreement by Swanson, Mills said. He failed to mark the lease site according to Coast Guard requirements and was late with rental payments on multiple occasions.
Leaseholders agree to keep the lease site free of garbage. A DMR visit to the site in June of this year found two large plastic nets and a tire on the sea bottom inside the lease site, Jon Lewis, the department’s aquaculture coordinator, said.
Mills also raised concerns about the transfer of the lease and equipment to Mussel Bound.
Friends of Blue Hill Bay “would strongly consider the possibility of an appeal” if the commissioner decides to grant the lease renewal, Mills said.
Swanson said he has kept his part of the lease agreement. “We’re required to practice aquaculture, and we’ve done that,” he said.
Swanson has had several DMR lease decisions appealed and challenged in court, he said, and won the right to continue operations every time.
“My other neighbors, if they had a concern, we could sit down and work something out,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t have the stomach to face a bunch of lawyers and a wheelbarrow full of paperwork when they go to their hearings. FOBHB relies on intimidation. But it’s between them and the commissioner.”