Computer renderings of Whole Oceans' indoor salmon farm, slated for construction at the former Verso paper mill site in Bucksport. Credit: Courtesy of Whole Oceans

The developer of a $250 million salmon farm proposed for Bucksport closed on a deal Tuesday to buy a chunk of the former Verso Paper mill site.

The finalized sale, for an undisclosed price, will allow Whole Oceans to start building what promises to be one of New England’s first land-based salmon aquafarms. Company officials said they hope to break ground later this year.

The closing is a major step for Bucksport as it continues its reinvention following the Verso shutdown in late 2014, which eliminated 570 jobs. It was the end of more than 80 years of papermaking for the town of 4,915 residents.

Whole Oceans has said it expects to hire 50 workers in its first phase and — if all goes well — grow to 200 workers through two more phases of construction. Another salmon farm, proposed for Belfast, has yet to get this far.

“The progress on the Whole Oceans project is exceeding expectations,” said Jason Mitchell, president of Whole Oceans. “It’s amazing what can be achieved when the community, local government and business collaborate toward common goals.”

“Bucksport is an optimal location for this type of operation, and we are looking forward to a long-term relationship with the town and to making this community a world leader in our industry,” Mitchell added.

The mill site’s owner, AIM Development, is also working to close a deal on a second large-scale development, a continuing education annex proposed by Maine Maritime Academy. A subsidiary of a Canadian scrap metal firm, AIM bought the site for $58 million in 2015.

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Maine Gov. Janet Mills applauded the end of the nearly yearlong due diligence period leading up to the real estate transaction. Whole Oceans had originally hoped to break ground this spring.

“This investment will provide good-paying jobs for hard-working Mainers, help build on our heritage industries and diversify our economy and offer promising opportunities for continued growth in the future,” Mills said in a statement.

Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard said she was ecstatic that the project had come this far.

“This transaction is the first investment on the former mill site since the mill closed. All the other development has occurred on Main Street and other sites in town, and we have done very well, but this is a huge step forward for us,” Lessard said.

“This is real now,” Lessard added. “If there is a report of a very happy woman dancing in front of the Town Office, that would be me.”

The Whole Oceans proposal survived an appeal filed by a Belfast resident challenging a wastewater discharge permit granted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection last November.

The proposed salmon farm in Bucksport has faced much less opposition than a land-based salmon farm another company has proposed in Belfast. Notably, the most vocal challenges to the Bucksport salmon farm have come from Belfast residents.

Whole Oceans now has all of its operational permits and are about to apply for construction permits, company spokeswoman Angie Helton said.

The wastewater permit allows Whole Oceans to discharge an average of 18.6 million gallons of filtered water per day into the Penobscot River to grow salmon from egg to 10 to 12 pounds per fish, gradually increasing production in three phases.

Phase I calls for an annual harvest of 5,000 metric tons, or 11 million pounds, of Atlantic salmon. Whole Oceans plans to increase output over time up to 10,000 metric tons, or 22 million pounds, annually and then up to 20,000 metric tons, or 44 million pounds, of salmon each year.

Whole Oceans officials have said they expect to import salmon eggs, at least to start, potentially from Iceland.

At least at the start of the salmon farm’s operation, Whole Oceans won’t process the salmon on site.

Americans eat about 500,000 tons of salmon each year, according to the latest information available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. About 95 percent is imported, farmed fish that comes almost entirely from Norway, Chile and Canada.

Whole Oceans officials who first unveiled the project to Bucksport in February 2018 said that they expect the pollutants released in its wastewater to be significantly lower than what the mill produced, though the nitrogen will be about on par.

Emergent Holdings, a private investment partnership formed exclusively to invest in aquaculture and agricultural markets in North America, is the parent company of Whole Oceans.

Watch: Verso Paper millworkers end final shift