Wild Atlantic Salmon (Courtesy USFWS, Illustration by Laury Zicari)
Wild Atlantic Salmon (Courtesy USFWS, Illustration by Laury Zicari)
Wild Atlantic salmon spend up to four years in the open ocean before they make their way back to their native streams to spawn.

It might not take Nordic Aquafarms, the Norwegian company that wants to build one of the largest indoor salmon farms in the world in Belfast, quite that long, but it will be an upstream effort.

Nordic Aquafarms plans to acquire 40 acres near the Little River to build the fish farm and is now approaching the first set of hurdles to see if the project can move forward. The biggest question is whether there is enough fresh water available.

State water utility regulators at the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) have the final say on whether the Belfast Water District can sell the Little River property and whether they can supply a large volume of city water to Nordic Aquafarms. The company is doing test drilling on the site itself to see if it can produce some of the water the fish farm will need.

The City of Belfast must also change the uses allowed on the Little River property for the fish farm to go forward.

March 20: The City of Belfast Looks at Zone Change

Belfast city councilors took the first step to change ordinances at its Tuesday, March 20, meeting.

Those changes include allowing a fish farm and associated uses, such as processing for fish waste or fish processing, on the property; putting in a building height limit of 50 feet; increasing the percentage of the property that can be built on from 65 percent to 70 percent (including parking lots and all non-vegetated surfaces); requiring all structures have a 50-foot setback (with 40 feet of that being naturally vegetated).

Other changes to the shoreland zone are also proposed, including allowing intake and outtake water pipes to and from Belfast Bay and allowing deep groundwater wells to be drilled in the shoreland zone, with the provision that the pipes must meet strict city approval and the wells must meet state-approved legal requirements.

About 15 people spoke at the public hearing on March 20, with another six written comments submitted, according to City Planner Wayne Marshall. Marshall will continue to take written comments on the proposed ordinance changes at any time, he said. A second public meeting is scheduled for April.

If the city adopts the proposed zoning changes, that does not mean the fish farm is approved; it will allow Nordic Aquafarms to apply to the Belfast Planning Board for permits to build the facility, with due diligence by the city and the company to follow.

May 30: Belfast Water District Seeks Approval to Sell Land, Water

Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) enforces state laws related to water rates and availability, so even though the Belfast Water District is a private company, it must get approval from the MPUC to sell the Little River land to Nordic Aquafarms and to sell a large volume of water from the East Belfast aquifer that would be piped across town to the fish farm.

The Little River has not been used as a municipal water source for 37 years.

For the past four decades, city water has come from a very large aquifer in East Belfast, located about six feet underground and extending from Swan Lake to Goose River. Belfast Water District Superintendent Keith Pooler said the aquifer is a great water supply with really clean water.

Pooler said it produces an average of 234 million gallons of water a year, with the capacity to produce 1 billion gallons a year.

“It’s replenished by rainfall,” he said. “We call it a lake. It is a vast underground area of sand and gravel that is full of water.”

In addition to the land and the lower dam that the Belfast Water District wants to sell to Nordic Aquafarms, the utility seeks approval to sell about 30 waterfront acres on both sides of the Little River to the City of Belfast. The city plans to maintain the popular walking trails on the property.

Pooler said the MPUC is currently scheduled to rule on the sale of city water to Nordic Aquafarms and the sale of the Little River property by May 30. If approved, proceeds from the sales will be directed to infrastructure upgrades and keeping water rates steady, said Pooler.

“Our intention is to use the extra revenue to rebuild water mains and other infrastructure that are about 140 years old,” said Pooler.

April/May: Nordic Aquafarms Tests the Little River Site

Engineers and scientists with Ransom Consulting are currently drilling test wells between 200 and 400 feet deep on the property, as weather permits, to see how much water the site can supply.

Elizabeth Ransom, the project manager, said the test wells are to collect data on the whole site and do not indicate where permanent wells will be established.

Pumping tests will follow to see if water drawn from one test well for an extended period of time draws down other test wells on the property.

Ransom said the goal is that when one well is drawn down, the other wells would remain unaffected. That would give an indication that water can naturally be replenished. Ransom said analysis of the data from the pumping drawdown and recovery would follow and be used to create a 30-year time line to estimate if future wells can provide a long-term sustainable supply of water.

Ransom said it is not yet clear exactly how much water will be needed from the site and how much will be purchased from the Belfast Water District and pumped to the site.

Ransom estimated that the tests and analysis should be complete within the next six to eight weeks.

Treatment and recycling of water and fish waste is a separate and later step in the due diligence and state and federal permitting process, which is expected to take at least the rest of this year.

Nordic Aquafarms has until June 2019, at the latest, to close on the sale of the Belfast Water District property.

Where Does the Endangered Atlantic Salmon Fit?

Atlantic salmon can be confusing in Maine on a good day: there is the farmed Atlantic salmon on the dinner plate, the Maine “landlocked” Atlantic salmon that lives its whole life in fresh water and is a hugely popular sport fishery in the state, and the endangered wild ocean-going Atlantic salmon that come back to a handful of rivers in the U.S. — all of them in Maine — to spawn.

They are all the same species, Salmo salar, but they are not the same fish, and they fall under different legal jurisdictions.

The endangered sea-going wild Atlantic salmon get chemically imprinted on the stream they hatched out from and grew up in before they went to sea. When it’s time to spawn, they head home. Unlike Pacific salmon, they can return to spawn more than once.

It’s not just the fish itself that is protected from being caught or damaged; it’s their habitat and any interference from other salmon that might dilute the homing instinct — a problem currently associated with some ocean-farmed Atlantic salmon that have escaped their pens and mixed with the wild sea-going fish. To avoid diluting the homing instinct, salmon farmed off the Maine coast must now be of the same genetic stock as the wild salmon swimming free and headed to their native streams.

The Nordic Aquafarms salmon farm will be onshore in tanks in buildings, so it is not yet clear if it will bump up against the Endangered Species Act. It could. The company tentatively plans to use Atlantic salmon from Finland, and the Little River is less than 10 miles from the Ducktrap River in Lincolnville, one of the protected salmon rivers.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) shares responsibility for overseeing the endangered fish with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

The USFWS has just begun coordinating with NOAA to take a look at the land-based salmon farms in both Belfast and in Bucksport to see how or if they come under their jurisdiction.

“This is the first time land-based aquaculture will raise imported Atlantic salmon at a facility in Maine,” said Meagan Racey, a USFWS spokesperson.

More Public Hearings: Fed, State, City, Company

Given all these different levels of scrutiny, Belfast residents can look forward to a full calendar of public hearings at the city, state and federal levels related to Nordic Aquafarms over the next couple of years.

A second public meeting on proposed ordinance changes is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the April 17 Belfast City Council meeting.

The next public information session by the company is tentatively scheduled for the first of May. In a statement, Nordic Aquafarms said by then they will have the water analysis and a proposed plan for the other environmental assessments.

Meanwhile, up at the mouth of the Penobscot River in Bucksport, another onshore salmon farm is just stepping into the regulatory waters, with a lot more updates to come.