BELFAST, Maine — As a Norwegian aquaculture firm tries to find enough groundwater to operate sustainably in Belfast for the next several decades, locals are full of questions about how the farm would affect their city.
Their concerns range from how the company will control water quality to how they’ll keep all those fish guts from stinking up the place.
City officials and Nordic Aquafarms hosted the first public question-and-answer session related to the project Wednesday night, and more than 300 locals crammed into the Hutchinson Center conference room. Dozens of late-comers lined the walls or stood in the back of the room for lack of a seat.
“Everything needs to be lined up in a good way for this project to work in this community,” Nordic CEO Erik Heim told the audience before fielding questions.
The project, which would bring one of the world’s largest indoor aquaculture sites to Belfast, drew international attention when it was first announced late last month. It’s drawn a lot of excitement, curiosity and questions in the community during the weeks since then. When fully built out, the project could cost up to $500 million and produce 33,000 tons of salmon each year.
Elizabeth Ransom, senior project manager for the consulting firm that worked with Nordic to pinpoint the best potential sites for the farm, said Nordic is combing the former water district land to ensure it can find enough groundwater to move forward.
Nordic says it won’t build on the site if it finds there isn’t enough sustainable fresh and salt water to fuel its operations without overextending local water resources. Officials with Belfast’s water district have said the city has more than enough supply, as it was able to support large-scale chicken and sardine industries for decades without issue.
Several locals wanted to know how the facility would control its discharge, and what amounts of specific pollutants it expects to be in that water. Heim said discharge would be treated to eliminate about 90 percent of biological matter and nutrients produced by the fish — primarily nitrogen and phosphorous — before being released. Phosphorus and nitrogen can pollute the water and cause excess algae growth if introduced in too great a quantity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, so aquaculture sites have to meet strict discharge requirements.
Heim added that it’s too early to know exactly how much nitrogen and phosphorus would be in the discharge because the farm, tanks and filtration systems are still being planned and designed. State and federal agencies will be responsible for setting discharge limits during the permitting process, which should stretch through much of this year. Heim also expects ultraviolet light will be used to kill bacteria in the water, a process that’s already being used in facilities in Europe.
Another local wanted to know how the company plans on handling the vast quantities of fish guts it will be left with after harvesting a fully grown tank of salmon. He worried truckloads of guts running through town or being stored at the facility would stink up Belfast.
Heim said that Nordic will handle guts the same way they’re handled in European operations. They’ll be frozen into blocks immediately after the fish are processed, and then likely sold to another company to be made into animal feed or supplements, such as fish oil.
“It’s a valuable resource with a real market value,” Heim said. “The worst thing to do is throw it away and view it as waste.”
Other residents were concerned about how the development would affect the Little River Trail, a walking path that runs along the reservoir adjacent to the future aquafarm site.
The city purchased the land surrounding the unused Little River reservoir, including the trail, as a buffer zone. Heim said Nordic would ensure easy public access to the trail and parking lot, and that buildings likely would be sheltered by trees and designed in a way that wouldn’t detract from the trail.
Nordic Aquafarms expects high demand for its fish, which it will market mostly in the Northeast. Americans consume about 500,000 tons of salmon each year, but about 95 percent of that is imported. Global demand for seafood is expected to double in the next two decades as the world population grows, and the only way of feeding that appetite in a sustainable way is through aquaculture.
A second large-scale salmon farm is under construction in Miami, Florida, and it’s likely several more companies will be trying to site land-based seafood farms in the U.S. in coming years.
Throughout March and April, Belfast and Nordic will attempt to sort through a series of zoning and land use ordinance changes needed to clear the way project. After that, Nordic would move on to start securing state and federal permits and approvals, followed by local permitting.
Nordic hopes to start construction sometime in 2019 and start raising the first fish in the facility the following year.
A video recording of the meeting is posted on the city’s website.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.