Aquaculture Leases – Understanding the Process

Maine’s aquaculture industry is growing. It was valued at nearly $72 million in 2018. If you receive email updates from the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), you’ve probably noticed that your inbox is regularly flooded with notices about aquaculture leases. Or perhaps you have received a letter in the mail or seen a notice in your local paper. So what’s this aquaculture application process all about?

University of Maine aquaculture student
Aquaculture ventures in Maine come in many sizes, feature different species, and are rapidly increasing in number. Photo courtesy of University of Maine.

First, there are three types of aquaculture leases in Maine and they all have separate review processes. Limited Purpose Aquaculture or LPAs are licenses for aquaculture leases that are 400 square feet or less to raise certain types of shellfish, green sea urchins or marine algae. These licenses are renewable annual licenses that expire on Dec 31st of each year. The cost is just a low application fee of $50, and primary approval is by the local harbormaster or a municipal officer before DMR issues the license. An LPA license is often used to try out a new area, or is used by hobby farmers or by small commercial enterprises. They are not expandable nor is the renewal guaranteed. However, this type of application has increased dramatically from 200 to 600 over the past three years.

Experimental leases are granted for sites of up to 4 acres for suspended or bottom cultures. These leases run for three years and are non-renewable. The application cost is a little higher ($100), and lease holders pay a fee of $100 per acre per year. The sites are allowed to grow any species already present in Maine and are often used as a test site for a permanent or Standard Lease. The approval process goes through DMR and has the possibility of public feedback through a comment period or potentially a public hearing.

The third type is a Standard Lease issued for sites up to 100 acres for any species already present in Maine. The lease runs for up to 20 years. Sites smaller than 100 acres can be expanded by either 25% or 4 acres whichever is less, not to exceed 100 acres. These sites are renewable. The application cost runs from $1500 to $2000 and lease holders also pay $100/acre/year fee to the state. The process for a standard application always includes two opportunities for public feedback and a public hearing is required.

The application and approval process for each of these varies. Once an Experimental Lease application has been submitted and deemed complete, DMR is required to send notices about the application to landowners within 1000 feet of the proposed site, and to the officials of the town, and are required to place notices of the application and hearing in a local newspaper. DMR also sends notices to the local Lobster Advisory Council representatives. Once the notices are sent, the public has thirty days to comment on the application. This is the time to request a public hearing on the application if desired. If no comments are received
DMR science staff are required to visit the site to characterize it and evaluate existing uses within the proposed area (fishing, recreation, how close it is to shore, channels, mooring, and potentially conduct a SCUBA dive or drop camera video to characterize the flora and fauna in the area, etc.). This information is used to creates a “site review report”. If no hearing is conducted, the application and the report are sent back to DMR Hearings Officer and to the Assistant Attorney Genera who have has 60 days to review the application and to make a draft decision. The draft The final decision is sent to the Assistant Attorney General for review and the final decision is made by the Commissioner of Marine Resources. The lease paperwork is submitted to the applicant and filed with the DMR office. Notices are sent of the approval or denial, with a 30 to 40 day appeal period to the Superior Court. If no appeals are made, the lease paperwork is submitted to the applicant and filed with the DMR office.

If five or more people who received the notices of the application file written comments a request for a public hearing, then a hearing is required to take place. DMR has the option of holding a public hearing even if one is not requested in order to solicit feedback from the public. So far that hasn’t happened. Typically when a site is controversial, DMR will get five or more public requests for a hearing on an experimental lease. That happens frequently.

The application process for a Standard aquaculture lease is a lot more complex. Before an interested party can even submit a draft application, they are required to meet with DMR and the Harbormaster. Then they have four months to submit the draft application. Once the draft application is received, DMR has 30 days to review it to make sure it is complete. Next the applicant must hold a “Scoping Session” in the town where the site is to be based. This is basically an informal public meeting hosted by the applicant to explain the proposed aquaculture project to the public. The applicant is required to give notice 20 days before the meeting and DMR is required to pass that information along to the town and to the public.

University of Maine Photo.

Based on the feedback from a scoping session, an applicant can submit a revised application or submit the completed draft application. Once an application is complete, DMR science staff will conduct a site visit and compile their findings in a report presented to the public during a required public hearing on the lease application. Following the public hearing, DMR, and in consultation with the Assistant Attorney General, review the application and make a draft decision. Once the draft decision is made, an applicant has ten days to review the findings and the final application is sent to the Commissioner for approval or denial. Like an Experimental Lease, an applicant has a 30 to 40 day appeal period before final lease paperwork is submitted to the applicant.

The aquaculture lease application process becomes more complicated and requires more public input as the size of the proposed site increases. As a lobsterman, be sure to monitor aquaculture lease notices from the state. As someone who relies on the ocean for your living, your feedback on leases proposed in your area are essential for the state to understand and can affect the approval process.

If you have concerns about an Experimental Lease application, which can be up to four acres in size, be sure to put your concerns in writing. Remember, the state must hear from five people to ensure that a public hearing is held.

Remember that Standard Leases can be up to 100 acres in size and require the applicant to hold a scoping session. These are large projects so you should attend Scoping Session scheduled for a standard lease on your area. This is your opportunity to offer feedback and comments to the applicant before the application is finalized.

Review draft applications proposed for your area. This is where you can see all the information on the size, location and seasonality of the proposed lease, and what products are proposed to be grown. You’ll get answers to your questions and understand if you want to submit comments about the application. If you feel a proposed aquaculture lease site will directly affect you in significant ways, then you should apply for “Intervenor Status”. As an intervenor you will be closer to the process.

Lastly, attend the public hearings. DMR will be there, and sometimes the Assistant Attorney General, listening to your feedback which will be considered in making a draft decision or whether to recommend permitting the proposed lease.

DMR has a comprehensive website with all this information and more; it’s even got some nifty flow charts. Go to https://www.maine.gov/dmr/aquaculture/public-participation.html to see more information including the application rules and the lease decision criteria. The Aquaculture Department is also available to answer any of your questions. You can call them at 207-624-6567 or email: DMRaquaculture@maine.gov.