Already the largest producer of America’s favorite fish, Maine’s annual output of 35 million pounds of salmon could more than triple in the coming years, if two land-based aquaculture ventures now in the works deliver what they promise. Together, Norway’s Nordic Aquafarms and Maine-based Whole Oceans, expect one day to account for more than 15% of the domestic U.S. salmon supply.
The aquaculture projects represent a combined half-billion dollars in capital investment in two nearby towns on Penobscot Bay, about 100 miles (160 km.) northeast of Portland. Belfast and Bucksport, 23 miles (37 km.) apart and largely abandoned by heavy industry, find themselves at the leading edge of a food technology that could provide huge amounts of protein, sustainably, to a hungry planet.
“We really do think that this is transformative not only for the region, not only for the state, but just in the way we feed people,” says Peter DelGreco, president and CEO of Maine & Company, a privately funded statewide economic development organization.
DelGreco adds that the advanced RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) technology underpinning both projects will produce healthy salmon that, unlike those raised in ocean pens, will not have been exposed to mercury, plastics or antibiotics. Indoor farming could preserve wild fish. It could reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by blunting imports, now 90% percent of America’s salmon supply.
What’s not to love?
Quite a lot, say opponents in one of the two towns.
Nordic Aquafarms, headquartered in Fredrikstad, Norway, announced plans last year to spend up to $500 million in the coastal Maine town of Belfast to build a three-tank indoor salmon farm measuring three times the size of an Olympic pool. By investment, it’s Maine’s biggest private project in memory.
At full production, Nordic expects to raise 66 million pounds of salmon a year. RAS, never deployed at such scale, operates by a complex process of recirculating water through a purification system. With a projected 100 full-time workers, Nordic would become one of the top 10 employers in Belfast.
Marianne Naess, commercial director for Nordic Farms, Inc. says the company already raises salmon using RAS technology at an indoor location in Fredrikstad and at another in Denmark. As they develop in a completely controlled, indoor environment, RAS-raised salmon can go from eggs to mature product in two years, about half the time required for pen-raised salmon.
“This is high-quality fish,” says Naess. “They exercise 24/7 in the tank and develop great firmness and texture. No medications, no antibiotics, no GMO.”
Naess tells Site Selection that Nordic looked to the U.S. because it wanted to get closer to its customers. She says plentiful water supplies were crucial to site selection.
“We need access to clean seawater and clean freshwater,” says Naess. “So, we have to be close to the ocean, and it has to be free of pollution. It has to be a constructable site of sufficient size and access. And we have to be in a place,” Naess say, “where we can recruit people. That brought us to Maine. There’s a great fishing tradition here, and Maine is a great brand in the seafood world.”
While Nordic plans to build its facility from the ground up, on 50 acres (20 hectares) about 300 feet (90 m.) across a road from Penobscot Bay, Whole Oceans was drawn to a structure already standing: Bucksport’s former Verso paper mill, which closed in 2014 with the loss of 570 jobs.
Jennifer Fortier, outreach and development associate at Whole Oceans, Inc., says the company’s long-term plans include expanding into other locations that, combined, could produce up to 50 million pounds of salmon a year, with 20 million pounds coming from Bucksport.
“Our goal over the next 15 to 20 years,” Fortier tells Site Selection, “is 10% of the U.S. market. It’s not just all at the Bucksport site. We would consider other sites in the region whether it’s Maine or somewhere else, as well as the West Coast.”
One of the Bucksport site’s key benefits is its pre-existing water intake system, which spares Whole Oceans hefty construction costs, and, importantly, permitting issues. Whole Oceans says it can draw up to 72 million gallons of brackish water a day from the Penobscot River and 18 million gallons of freshwater from a nearby lake. The Bucksport site, not insignificantly, was passed over by Nordic.
In May, Whole Oceans completed its purchase of the former Verso property, a significant step forward that marked the culmination of months of negotiations and the extensive permitting process. The company hopes to break ground later this year.
“The progress on the Whole Oceans project in Bucksport, Maine, is exceeding expectations," Jason Mitchell, president of Whole Oceans, said in a released statement. “It’s amazing what can be achieved when the community, local business and government collaborate toward common goals. Advances in permitting, site diligence, design and construction planning really highlight the opportunity that this project delivers.”
Mitchell continued, “Bucksport is an optimal location for this type of operation, and we are looking forward to a long-term relationship with the town of Bucksport, and to making this community a world leader in our industry.”
A Rocky Reception
For Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast, things have not proceeded as smoothly. Facing unexpected opposition, the project is well behind schedule and potentially in doubt. Now hoping to break ground in 2020, Nordic has had to hunker down on the defensive.
“We’ve put so much investment and effort into it that I don’t thinks it’s time to give up right now,” says Naess. “But, you know, I certainly wish some of the dialogue had been different.”
The first hint of trouble came in April 2018, when several dozen citizens turned up for 5-0 city council vote in favor of Nordic’s request to re-zone its selected property for industrial use. The locals came with questions about the size of the project, the technology and the effects on Penobscot Bay. At increasingly tense, New England-style town hall meetings, some attended by Nordic President Erik Heim, opposition appeared to gel as questions became more pointed: What about water and energy usage? Waste discharge? Fish food? Smell? What about traffic, chemicals, jobs and aesthetics?
Naess says 90% of Belfast supports the Nordic project. She and others point to the fact that three city council candidates, all of whom ran to block the farm, were roundly defeated in November. But opponents have proved to be persistent, well-funded and social media savvy. They’ve gummed up the permitting process, including repeatedly challenging Nordic’s application to pipe fish waste into Penobscot Bay. A lawsuit alleging that the city cut corners in re-zoning the Nordic site has cost Belfast tens of thousands of dollars. The Penobscot Pilot reported in late June that that evidence submitted in the case, which still is in discovery, has come to fill two two-inch binders.
“I had expected some opposition, but not this much,” Thomas Kittredge, Belfast economic development director, tells Site Selection. “I certainly didn’t expect us to get sued. ”
Asked about the contrast to the welcome mat extended to Whole Oceans in Bucksport, Kittredge notes that the site of the former Verso mill was zoned industrial already, and people are long accustomed to seeing it. The Nordic site, by contrast, sits on greenspace owned by the Belfast Water District that some residents treat as parkland.
“It’s going to look different than it currently does,” Kittredge says.
Elizabeth Ransom is principal, senior project manager and senior geologist for Ransom Consulting Engineers and Scientists, which aided Nordic in the site selection process. Ransom says her team was engaged by Nordic spring 2017 after the company, using its own market research, had narrowed its site search from both U.S. coasts to the East Coast region stretching from Virginia to Canada. Using geographic information systems and databases, Ransom says the team looked at “thousands” of sites before eventually narrowing in on Maine. Among a dozen or so potential sites there, Nordic officials briefly considered the former Verso Mill in Bucksport, where Whole Oceans is off to a far smoother start.
“At the time,” says Ransom, “their feeling was that it wasn’t matching some of their site needs. We kind of did a drive-by, but it wasn’t something that was walked around.”
People close to the project say that, had Nordic selected property that was privately owned, the process might have gotten off the ground more smoothly. They say that with the Water District being a quasi-public entity, the deal was subject to public scrutiny from the beginning.
“The moment you start saying I want to negotiate a potential purchase and sale agreement, you are in the public element,” says Ransom. “You may not have completed all your studies, and yet the public is involved because there’s a review process. You’re having to engage with the public, who very much want to know what your plans are, before you necessarily have that defined."