" This is going to put Belfast and Maine on the map. This is huge. — Peter DelGreco Maine & Company "
An architectural concept by Alliance Arkitekter of the Fredrikstad Seafoods facility under construction by Nordic Aquafarms in Norway. It is the largest land-based aquaculture facility in Europe. When fully built out, the Belfast facility will be five times larger. (Image courtesy Nordic Aquafarms)
An architectural concept by Alliance Arkitekter of the Fredrikstad Seafoods facility under construction by Nordic Aquafarms in Norway. It is the largest land-based aquaculture facility in Europe. When fully built out, the Belfast facility will be five times larger. (Image courtesy Nordic Aquafarms)
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A Norwegian aquaculture company plans to build one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms on 40 acres near the Little River in Belfast. When complete, the $500 million facility will employ up to 140 people and produce 66 million pounds of salmon — currently about eight percent of all salmon consumed in the U.S.

Nordic Aquafarms, which recently established smaller facilities in Norway and Denmark, announced Tuesday they are in the process of purchasing 40 acres just off Route 1 on the Northport/Belfast town line, including 26 acres from the Belfast Water District company at the site of the Little River dam.

The sale will be final after environmental assessments are completed over the next several months.

Eric Heim, CEO of Nordic Aquafarms, said the first part of the facility, Phase 1, will cost about $150 million and employ about 60 people when it goes into production in 2020.

Some of those employees will be from Norway, others will be from the region and local area, he said.

Phase 1 will produce about 13,000 tons of salmon and have the largest aquaculture tanks in the world. It will be larger than the existing Nordic plants on the other side of the Atlantic. When the Belfast facility is completely finished, it will be five times larger than the land-based operation Nordic Aquafarms is currently completing in Norway.

Nordic Aquafarms farms fish inside buildings on land using pumped-in water.

The Belfast facilities will be built with sustainable energy use in mind, too, said Heim, including solar panels on roofs, energy generated through water movement, and energy produced from waste products.

“We are also looking at purchasing a Tesla fleet for delivery of the product,” he said.

Nordic Aquaculture will likely look for a partner company to process the fish once it is harvested, but has not ruled out also investing in their own processing facility.

Nordic Aquafarms is now establishing similar, smaller farms in Denmark and Norway and has an overall low-environmental-impact and low-chemical approach to farming premium market fish.

But they are almost too new to have a track record.

The second phase of construction has just begun at the Fredrikstad Seafoods facility in Norway. They will have their first salmon harvest from the phase-one section of the plant later this year.

Heim said the Belfast Atlantic salmon will be grown sustainably and meet the “Best Choice”standard from the Seafood Watch Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Seafood Watch is internationally recognized for its science-based sustainable seafood standards. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, when good practices are used, it’s possible to farm seafood in a way that has very little impact on the environment. Such operations limit habitat damage, disease, escapes of farmed fish and the use of wild fish as feed.

The facility will need cold sea water and fresh water — and lots of it. The actual amount will not be known until more research is done, according Heim. The company plans to buy about $300,000 of water a year from the Belfast Water District and drill wells on site at the Little River location to provide more water.

Water will be flushed through the fish tanks, said Heim.

City water will be treated when going in to remove chlorine and all water treated before being pumped out, but almost all the water will be recycled internally, with about one percent of volume released into Penobscot Bay, Heim said.

Nordic Aquafarms is intentionally and aggressively planning to establish itself as a world leader in land-based aquaculture of premium fish species like Atlantic salmon and yellow fin, a favorite sushi fish.

The company is financed in part by deep-pocketed Norwegian shipping companies and is debt-free, according to Norwegian news reports.

The U.S. presented an economic opportunity to expand rapidly, since the U.S. imports about 90 percent of its seafood, said Heim.

After searching for locations in Asia and on both American coasts, Heim said Maine became a choice location due to its “pristine enviroment, cold water conditions, long history as a leader in the seafood industry” and its proximity to 70 million people within delivery distance to East Coast cities.

Peter DelGreco, the head of Maine & Company, an economic development company-hunting firm in Portland, steered Heim towards three or four Maine sites near the coast, including Belfast.

 


DelGreco was responsible for recruiting Athenahealth to Belfast over a decade ago.

“The location had to be big and it had to be close to the ocean because it requires pumping in seawater to be financially feasible,” said DelGreco. “Believe it or not, even in Maine there aren’t a lot of 40-acre parcels that close to the ocean.”

“Belfast won out because of the community,” he said. “This is a place where world-class scientists who are recruited by the company would want to live. This is a place Eric and his family would want to live.”

Heim carries dual citizenship from Norway and the U.S.

There was no special tax incentive package from the state, according to DelGreco.

“The company is likely to apply for Pine Tree Zone status and other state incentives they might be eligible for, just like any company would,” he said. But the deal wasn’t sweetened by the state.

“This company is going to put Belfast, Maine, and the entire state on the map as a place where you can do a project like this,” said DelGreco. “This is huge.”

And Belfast officials knew it.

They were willing to sweeten the deal to get Nordic Aquafarms to choose Belfast.

“The city’s role was as an active negotiator between the water district, the second land owner and Nordic Aquafarms,” said Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum.

The city worked with the Belfast Water District, which is independent, not owned by the municipality, and wasn’t expecting a Norwegian company to come knocking on the door.

“The Belfast Water District had not used this water or the land for 37 years,” said Slocum.

As part of the final deal, the city itself will acquire about 30 acres of Belfast Water District property around the Little River reservoirs, including the popular trail system. It will remain essentially unchanged and open to the public under city ownership, said Slocum.

The city will pay up to $100,000 for the Belfast Water District property, said Slocum, with the funds likely to come out of the $2.5 million municipal reserve account.

The parcels the city plans to buy are separate from, but adjacent to, the 26 acres Nordic Aquafarms plans to buy from the Belfast Water District.

The city also offered to relocate the Belfast Water District offices to municipal property on Crocker Road, off Route 3, where the city is currently building a new public works facility.

“The water district hasn’t made a decision on that, yet,” said Slocum.

The city then offered Nordic Aquafarms two initial incentives to close the deal: to split the cost of chlorine removal from the city water going into the fish facility at a cost to the city of $120,000 over six years, and to pay part of the cost of evaluating the condition of the picturesque dam on the lower Little River reservoir that can be seen from Route 1.

“Heim doesn’t know yet whether they will need water from that reservoir, and it makes sense for the city to know the condition,” said Slocum. “We agreed to split the cost.”

Under the agreement, the cost to the city for dam assessment will not exceed $20,000, according to Slocum.

In addition to protecting the popular Little River trail and reservoir area as public property, the city is not walking away with a bad deal.

“They will be paying in excess of $1 million in property taxes a year after they build the first part of the facility,” said Slocum. “We were willing to put in some money to remove chlorine and assess the dam.”

Heim said the proposed site has suitable qualities for land-based salmon farming based on initial research, but Nordic Aquafarms will now proceed with final due diligence, including water volume estimates.

“We should be able to answer that question within three months,” he said.

The next step in the process is environmental assessment, followed by state and federal permitting.

Heim said the company will also hold local public information sessions to get input and explain the process.

Scrutiny about other environmental impacts, such as the temperature of water from the facility being released in the intertidal zone nearby and potential impacts on the native endangered Atlantic Salmon that hatch and return to nearby Ducktrap River to spawn, are on the horizon.

“In Norway, we are working in an estuary zone,” said Heim. “We are very sensitive to these issues.”