A locked gate blocks access to a former paper mill property off Route 15 that Whole Oceans plans to redevelop into a salmon farm in this December 2020 file photo. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

BUCKSPORT, Maine — As other large-scale aquaculture projects along the Maine coast continue to come up against opposition, Whole Oceans has basically everything it needs to start work at the old Verso paper mill site.

But it hasn’t.

The proposed land-based Atlantic salmon recirculating aquaculture facility on about 100 acres along the Penobscot River would be one of the largest land-based aquaculture projects in the world, according to Whole Oceans. It received approval from the Bucksport Planning Board in 2019 and the green light from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection later that year. The project has also enjoyed local support that has remained elusive for other large aquaculture projects in Maine, including American Aquafarms in Gouldsboro and Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast.

Yet, despite this wealth of approvals and lack of opposition, ground hasn’t been broken at the old mill and town officials said they don’t really have any indication of when it may start.

“They’re in a holding pattern,” Bucksport Code Enforcement Officer Luke Chiavelli said. “That’s about all I know.”

In 2019, the company purchased one of the parcels at the old mill site, and received all the permits it needed to move forward. The first phase of the project was estimated at $180.6 million. Whole Oceans later bought a second 10-acre parcel in late 2020, and said that with addition, more planning was needed.

“Aquaculture at this level is complex, and the addition of [the second parcel] creates even more opportunities that must be considered,” Michael Thompson, a senior project coordinator, said at the time. “So, while you may not see a shovel in the ground yet, know that our team is working hard to develop the best designs that will result in a world-class facility for Bucksport and the state of Maine.”

Whole Oceans spokesperson Angie Helton said that the company had no updates on the project but is still working on the design. She expected more significant updates in the first quarter.

Chiavelli hasn’t received any applications that would be needed before work could commence at the second site, but he had expected the company would start at least some groundwork on the first lot, where all the permitting is in hand.

“If they wanted to start digging … today, they’re good to go,” he said.

Meanwhile, the company has gone through a slew of leadership changes since it first started talking to Bucksport in 2016. Rob Piasio stepped down as CEO in 2018 and handed the reins over to Jason Mitchell. In 2019, Jacob Bartlett took over the CEO role for Whole Oceans and Mitchell stepped back but kept his role as company president. Mitchell has since left the company and started a consulting business. This summer, Whole Oceans confirmed with the town that Bartlett is no longer CEO and the company is in the process of hiring a replacement, said Susan Lessard, the Bucksport town manager.

“I think they have their own stuff that they are working through,” she said.

While the project isn’t moving forward as fast as Lessard would like, she emphasized that the company is up to date on its taxes, in full compliance with its permits and can proceed how it sees fit.

“We’re not going to tell them how to run their show,” she said.

Whole Oceans’ local plan approval is good for five years and it was always expected that the company would need to ask for an extension because of the complexity of the project.

Still, Chiavelli said it was “discouraging” that the project has passed the two-year mark since the approval with no shovels in the dirt. Town officials have been supportive of the Whole Oceans project along the way.

“I don’t have anything to tell me they’re not going to [move ahead],” Lessard said.