Nordic Aquafarms founder Erik Heim talking with a Belfast resident at a recent public information session in Belfast (Photo by C. Parrish)
Nordic Aquafarms founder Erik Heim talking with a Belfast resident at a recent public information session in Belfast (Photo by C. Parrish)
“Why is it going to be so big?” I asked Erik Heim, the man who wants to build one of the largest indoor fish farms in the world on the outskirts of Belfast.

It is a massive project that will produce 66 million pounds of Atlantic salmon a year, raising the fish from eggs in an on-site hatchery all the way through until they ship out the door as fresh fish on ice.

Heim, 50, lives in Oslo, Norway, though he was born in Boston and lived in the U.S. until he was six. He was sitting across from me with a cup of coffee at Traci’s Diner in early April on a quick trip to Belfast.

A lot of people wanted to know why he picked Belfast. That seemed easy to answer: It was hard to find 40 undeveloped acres with clean fresh water next to the ocean within a four-hour drive of Boston and next to a trendy town that young fish-tech types would find attractive as a place to live.

I wanted to know why he was going to produce so many pounds of Atlantic salmon in one location and why he was in such a hurry to do it.

It was hard to imagine 66 million pounds of fish. In rough translation, we were looking at the Belfast fish farm producing about 1,000 school buses’ worth of salmon a year. Any way you count them, that’s a lot of fish.

“Land-based is not brand new,” said Heim. The salmon will be grown completely indoors, in tanks, with fresh and saline water filtered and piped in. They might be able to smell the ocean nearby, but they will never see it.

“There are land-based farms now,” he said.

The problem, said Heim, is they are not big enough to be profitable and sustainable.

Sustainability has become a buzzword, with the result that it has lost its punch. It’s not clear what it means anymore. Its essence is simple, though. Sustainability is a philosophy of producing socially and environmentally responsible goods and services. To be more than greenwashing a label for profit — there is plenty of that on view in the frozen fish case at the local supermarkets — those benefits have to be measurable and verifiable by independent auditors using widely accepted standards. In the U.S., Seafood Watch at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the best source of information on who meets them.

Heim is conversant in those standards.

“You want it to be profitable and you want it to be sustainable,” I said. “Those two things go hand in hand?”

“Yeah,” said Heim. “That’s the whole thing. I hope that comes through, the sustainability of the project and the social responsibility dimension of it. That’s it. I think investment markets are seeing more and more that you can combine sustainability and profitability in a good way.”

In other words, a sustainable project has to be profitable enough to attract big-time investors, and to be profitable, it has to be big.

“Yes. To get profit into a sustainable industry, only big works,” said Heim.

Who Is Erik Heim?

“It seems a lot of these things happened very quickly,”

I said, referring to Heim’s indoor fish farming projects in northern Europe.

The Denmark facility is the largest indoor fish farm in the world producing a prime sushi fish, yellowtail kingfish.

The Fredrikstad Seafoods facility in Norway is still being built. It will grow indoor Atlantic salmon and produce about a fifth the amount of fish the Belfast farm will. It is essentially a test case for Belfast, but it’s not small, either. It will be the largest land-based salmon farm in Europe when it’s complete.

Heim has tapped into fish farming experts at his European facilities but is, himself, relatively new to fish farming.

“What were you doing before fish?”

“I got started on this eight years ago,” he said. Heim has a corporate background in financial auditing and in the insurance industry, where he mentored corporations embarking on new ventures. That was followed by work as an independent business advisor in Norway.

In 2010, one of the biggest capital banks in Norway wanted to get advisory support for financing aquaculture and pulled Heim in to help. He started working on the investor side, and then started advising suppliers of aquaculture technology.

“I worked on a few projects like that on the advisory side and started to see an opportunity,” said Heim. “I got a master’s degree in sustainability from Oregon State University along with an MBA, so I’ve always had an interest in natural resource issues and fish. It’s been a personal interest.”

Fish are a hobby, too. He’s a fly fisherman.

Heim started to get a lot of local support for investment in a land-based fish farm in Fredrikstad, a coastal Norwegian city of about 80,000 people.

“Is that how it started? With the place?” I asked.

“It’s funny the way it started. Orkla owned the whole area down there. They are a big, big food brand company in Norway. They approached me and said, ‘You know we have all these big old tanks on our site down there.’”

“Historically, they had fish oil in them and they asked me if they could use them to grow fish. That’s where it started. I got Orkla to fund a project down there to look at that. The conclusion was, no, we can’t use those tanks, but we found there are a lot of positives in establishing land-based fish production, so I ended up getting them on board as shareholders along with five or six other local companies. That’s how the whole thing started.”

“Then we started getting strong support from the city and from the fisheries minister, so that’s how we built it, stone on stone.”

“And then we were able to grow it, stone on stone on stone, which eventually started pulling in the shipping capital,” said Heim. Three of the largest shipping companies in Norway are investors. These are deep-pocketed shipping families that have spread out their investments far beyond boats.

When Heim started, there was no permit system in place for land-based aquaculture. Norway was so heavily regulated for sea-pen aquaculture that there was no allowance to establish land-based, said Heim.

“We spent two years working politically in Norway to open up land-based permits.”

“In 2013 and 2014?”

“Yeah, yeah. Finally, first we got a research permit and then in summer of 2016, the fisheries minister launched land-based permits in Norway.”

“Salmon is one of the most regulated industries in the world, so when you try to do something new, it’s a very painful process,” said Heim.

Along the way, Heim built a relationship with Fredrikstad public officials, who approved expansion of the facility at the end of March.

Permitting in Maine

“It’s a little similar to what’s going on in Maine right now,” said Ted O’Meara, Heim’s local communications man. “The state has just decided land-based permitting is going to be in the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and they’re still writing the rules.”

“The original permitting was based on the net pen industry,” said Elizabeth Ransom of Ransom Consulting, who was also squeezed into the booth at Traci’s Diner. Ransom was overseeing the engineering studies on the Little River property and would continue to be involved on the ground with the permitting. “Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Marine Resources have an advisory team that comes into the Department of Agriculture, which issues the licenses,” said Ransom.

With the Belfast City Council’s April 17 vote to approve a zoning change that will allow a fish farm at the Little River site, the project can now move into the permitting and review stage. Nordic Aquafarms will need federal as well as state permits to operate.

As the city zoning discussions wound down in April, Ransom Consulting was nearing the conclusion of their assessments on whether the substrate was solid enough to hold the weight of the fish tanks and the buildings they will be housed in. It is.

Ransom’s preliminary results also show the site can supply an ample amount of clean groundwater to feed the facility. Ransom’s final water assessments will be available at a public meeting being held on May 9.

The Big Money

When Heim was planning the Fredrikstad indoor salmon farm, he was also busy courting investors

“I put a strong board together,” he said. “That is what I was working on, too. They are very well connected.”

The financing for the Belfast facility will also be step-by-step, said Heim.

“The important thing for our shareholders is that they see we have the zoning and permitting in place,” he said. “Let’s put it this way: investors don’t like uncertainty, so it’s going to be important to them to see the pieces fall into place in Belfast in a good way and that the support is here from the town. That will be instrumental for them.”

“Our record so far is that we have financed everything we said we would do, so that’s a pretty good track record,” said Heim.

Seven or eight of those involved in financing the land-based operations are high-level investors, said Heim.

“There is a lot of interest and a lot of capital,” he said. “We will likely grow our shareholders as we go.”

Heim said he was also looking at verifiable environmental sustainability standards that could make the Belfast company eligible as a green investment.

Green Bonds are one such investment that may or may not apply to Nordic Aquafarms. They’re tax-exempt, providing an incentive for investors to back large-scale environmentally friendly projects that meet at least 75 percent of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) standards for sustainability, such as in energy efficiency and water management.

Sustainability is a selling point.

“You see that with the tremendous interest we are getting for our products,” said Heim, noting that the sushi fish produced at the Danish facility have already been 100 percent sold to Nordic Seafood, a global seafood company, in a long-term contract.

In Norway, it’s the same thing, according to Heim. They have sold every fish even before the tanks are finished being built.

“It shows there is a great demand for these products and I think that’s why it’s exciting for Maine, as well. When you start envisioning about what Maine’s future is in the seafood industry, there’s an opportunity to pursue sustainability here.”

There is something besides the size of the project that trips some local people up. It’s the mental shift to consider that it may actually be more environmentally friendly to grow salmon inside a building in a tank than it is to either catch them on the open ocean or grow them in sea pens. After all, the whole ocean is lying out there right in front of us.

In the first case, there is no commercial fishery. Atlantic salmon in the open ocean in U.S. waters are an endangered species. That is the result of loss of habitat on shore in their native spawning streams due to the impact of houses, cities, and all the development on the Atlantic coast. And to overfishing.

There are now only seven, maybe eight, streams where native Atlantic salmon come back to breed. They are all in Maine.

In the second, Atlantic salmon raised for the commercial market in sea pens are in an environment that can’t easily be controlled. During storms, they escape and mix with wild salmon, thus potentially messing with the wild stocks’ ability to find their native stream to spawn. In Maine, that is carefully controlled. Farmed sea pen salmon are of the same local genome in Maine so they don’t confuse their wild offspring. That’s not true in nearby Canada.

But sea pen salmon are also prone to sea lice and pathogens.

Here comes Heim with a big solution in one corner of the fish market. According to Heim, the controlled environment of the indoor pen eliminates sea lice and controls pathogens and disease through clean, filtered water. He has no plans to use antibiotics or any medicines on the fish.

Land-based aquaculture of salmon may not seem strange to him. He’s been thinking about it for years and it appears he is betting on getting into a big market fast before competitors gain the edge.

In the end, whether the fish are, in fact, sustainable isn’t a matter of salesmanship or profit, either. It’s a matter of verification by auditors.

Betting on the Belfast Brand

Heim is betting big on Belfast, too. The company has already invested half a million dollars so far, before knowing if the zoning change would be approved or knowing if the site will ultimately work out. If the project moves forward favorably, as Heim puts it, he plans to move to the Portland area with his wife, Marianne Naess, a former Fulbright scholar who is an executive at McKesson Pharmaceuticals, one of the top 10 corporations in the Fortune 500. Heim will commute to Belfast. They are looking at moving this fall.

“This is a really big operation and we need to be close to it,” said Heim.

“Just like everyone is wondering who we are, we are also scrutinizing the situation here to see if this is favorable for us to be in, so it’s a two-way process,” said Heim.

And one where there will be a lot more questions to answer along the way.