Demolition underway at the former Verso Paper mill site in Bucksport on Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: Gabor Degre | BDN

BUCKSPORT, Maine — The Bucksport Planning Board on Tuesday night unanimously approved Whole Oceans’ plan to build a $180 million Atlantic salmon farm on the former Verso Paper mill site.

The board voted through a series of unanimous motions to allow Whole Oceans and its parent company and investment arm, Emergent Holdings, to proceed with construction of the facility — if the Maine Department of Environmental Protection approves a separate building permit. The company’s application for that second permit is pending, and the company expects to start construction in or around November.

Tuesday night’s meeting was the board’s first public hearing on the application, which was submitted on Aug. 16. With the board’s actions, Whole Oceans is a step away from starting the construction and fish-growing phase of the project, a four-year process that would make Bucksport the site of New England’s first land-grown salmon farm.

The pace of the Planning Board approval and the relative lack of opposition to the Bucksport salmon farm contrast sharply with a heavily contested plan for another land-based salmon farm in Belfast by a Norwegian company. Nordic Aquafarms’ application to the Belfast Planning Board has been pending since late June.

The fish farm would create as many as 75 jobs in Bucksport and help revitalize the Verso site, dormant since the mill’s closing in late 2014, which cost about 570 jobs. The farm’s jobs will pay anywhere from $15 to $18 per hour at the lowest level to several hundred thousand dollars annually. The company will start training its Bucksport workers at a salmon hatchery on an island off British Columbia in the spring, with as many local people as possible, CEO Jacob Bartlett said after the meeting.

“I’m very pleased and very proud of my team,” Bartlett said. “We are excited to move to the next chapter of this project and get started. That’s everybody’s dream here, to get started.”

Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard said she was also pleased with the local permit approval. She said that she expected the DEP permit application to be approved without difficulty, as it is an update to an industrial building and site plan at a location where industrial use — the paper mill — had been approved for decades.