View of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms facility in Belfast (Courtesy Nordic AquaFarms)
View of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms facility in Belfast (Courtesy Nordic AquaFarms)
The Norwegian-based company Nordic Aquafarms has begun hiring employees and is preparing applications for environmental permits to build one of the largest land-based salmon farms in the world. Supporters of the $150 million project note that the indoor aquaculture facility would employ about 60 workers and create more property valuation than the top 25 taxpayers in the city combined. But critics worry about the impact of the facility’s discharge on Penobscot Bay’s ecosystem, among other concerns. Last week, Nordic Aquafarms held a forum at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast featuring speakers from the aquaculture industry and the environmental community to field questions from local residents. But a number of those questions won’t be answered until the project goes through the permitting process.

“Right now we’re diving into all the details of the permits,” said Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim at the June 12 event. “It’s quite extensive in Maine and the US. So with the work we’re doing now, we are looking to submit our applications over the summer and that’s part of the official process on the state, federal and local level.”

So far, the company has secured a 42-acre parcel at the north end of Belfast off Route 1 and it will have to submit permit applications to the City of Belfast, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and federal Army Corps of Engineers. In 2019, Nordic Aquafarms plans to begin construction of the first phase of the project, which will have the capacity to produce 13,000 metric tons of salmon and then up to 30,000 mt once the second phase of the facility is completed. The company is also completing development of a 6,000 mt land-based salmon farm in Norway, which is slated to begin operation in December.

What distinguishes the Nordic Aquafarms proposal and another $250 million salmon facility proposed to be built in Bucksport from more traditional aquaculture operations is that they won’t be raising the salmon in sea pens. Both projects will keep the fish on land in special tanks that utilize a technology known as recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), which the developers say are more efficient and environmentaly sound. But at the forum, Jim Merkel of Belfast said that the “industry has violated the community’s trust” and expressed concerns about whether the discharge could end up subjecting the ecosystem in the bay to diseases and harmful chemicals.

“Part of my real concern in opposing this project is that our fishery is in a disaster,” said Merkel. “It’s really like climate change, biodiversity, water scarcity, nitrogen loading, the nine planetary boundaries being exceeded and now we’re proposing this mega industry here in our fragile waters that are clean, but devoid of fish.”

Paul Anderson, a longtime fisheries expert who heads the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, said that the public will not be able to see details about discharge information until the company files its applications for environmental permits.

“I share your concerns about disease because I know of recirculating situations that have been tried in the last couple of decades in the United States that have failed for that very reason,” said Anderson. “You’ve got a bad critter in there, a little micro vibrio or something, and all of a sudden they’ve wiped out your farm. And there’s plenty of situations where that’s happened both in production facilities as well as in research facilities. So I have the same questions.”

The company says it will treat intake water with UV light to prevent pathogens from coming in and causing an outbreak of disease, but it says it won’t be using medications that are harmful to sea life.

“These systems do provide very stable conditions for fish,” said Heim. “We can monitor oxygen level, CO2 levels, everything is monitored continuously and that enables us to give very stable conditions for the fish and also get much lower mortalities compared to any other environment.”

And unlike salmon raised in sea pens, the tank-raised salmon won’t be exposed to sea lice, so Nordic Aquafarms says it won’t need to treat the fish with chemicals. The company also claims its discharge will not be harmful to sea life and its technology will be capable of removing 99 percent of nutrients and 60 percent of nitrogen from the discharge water, while the remaining nutrients will be discharged far offshore. It plans to freeze fish heads and innards and will filter sludge from feces and feed for other uses such as fertilizer and biogas. But Anderson says he still has questions about the volume of the effluent, the rate of the discharge, the contents of the discharge and how it will end up in the receiving water.

“If you impact a receiving water beyond its classification, you’re not going to get your permit,” said Anderson. “This has SB classification out here in Belfast so it can’t measurably impact the water quality of the receiving water. And there’s a permit and a process for assessing that and there is ongoing monitoring to make sure that’s so.”

Feed Questions

Several area residents have also expressed concerns about the source for the salmon feed. Traditionally, salmon feed was mostly made up of wild forage fish, but now it’s just about five percent, according to Sarah Cook, a sales manager for Skretting — the world’s largest supplier of feed for farm-raised fish. At the forum, Cook said fish feed is different depending on the facility’s certification and the preferences of the fish farmers. She said the company uses vegetable proteins, wheat and vitamins and minerals and various proteins. Some of the proteins in the company’s fish feed derive from trimmings from the human consumption biproduct market as well as wild forage from Peru. Some feeds also contain porcine blood meal and poultry biproducts.

“We are looking at alternative proteins,” said Cook. “We do have certain salmon grower diets that are fish-meal free and are looking for alternatives to fish meal like insect meal or algae meals and other products.”

Nordic Aquafarms said its fish food will be non-GMO and it will consider organic alternatives, but notes that there is no organic certification for seafood in the US. Anne Hayden of Manomet, an environmental nonprofit, said it is reassuring that the company will not be using fish from the Gulf of Maine for its feed, except for some trimmings, because forage fish are a critical part of the region’s marine and river ecosystems. She added that trimmings from the salmon farm could also be used as bait for lobstermen, which could take some pressure off the herring fishery. But she also questioned whether using forage fish from away makes it better.

“It’s a really good question to ask about so many things,” said Hayden. “We are blessed to live in a beautiful state and we like it this way, but that means that we import a lot of things here. Yes, this is a facility that’s going in your community so it’s up to you to decide if it’s too big or too small and what the tradeoffs are because there are also benefits to it. But you’ll think about where your food comes from and what the impacts of producing it are.”

But Hayden also noted that the “best, most efficient, sustainable food and seafood production system” is the natural ecosystem in the Gulf of Maine, which produced over 254 million pounds of lobster, fish, seafood and shellfish for human consumption last year.

“And that’s what we have now, but we have the opportunity to have a lot more of that and the participants in the Downeast Fisheries Partnership are collectively investing $5 million this year in restoring fisheries in eastern Maine,” said Hayden. “That’s an investment in a public resource with a public benefit. So we could ask Erik [Heim] if he would rather invest his investment in it, but I’m guessing he would say no because the public would benefit. So that’s why this is happening, there’s an opportunity from a return on investment, but we also have the opportunity to make public investments in our natural ecoystems and grow our fisheries back again.”