December 17, 2018
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European company plans $150M salmon farm in Maine

Robert F. Bukaty | AP
Robert F. Bukaty | AP
An Atlantic salmon leaps in a Cooke Aquaculture farm pen near Eastport, Maine.

BELFAST, Maine — A Norwegian aquaculture company plans to build one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms on the Maine coast.

Nordic Aquafarms wants to build a $150 million facility on 40 acres off Route 1 on the outskirts of Belfast. It would be the most significant investment Waldo County has seen in decades. Total investment through all phases of the project could top $500 million, according to the company.

“We are committed to producing super fresh, high-quality seafood with a low environmental footprint for U.S. consumers,” Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim said Tuesday. “That requires local production, and we believe that we have found an ideal site here in Maine. We look forward to becoming a responsible and contributing member of the Maine seafood industry.”

Heim joined city and state officials at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast on Tuesday to make the announcement. About 200 locals turned out for the announcement, which was teased Monday as a “major” development that Maine Gov. Paul LePage planned to attend.

“Believe me, it wasn’t easy to find what we needed,” Heim told the crowd. “We looked all over the place.”

The company’s search started about a year ago along the coasts of China, Japan, England, Spain and the United States. Nordic Aquafarms carefully evaluating temperature, water conditions, pollution levels and land prices. Eventually, the search narrowed to the northeastern U.S.

Maine & Co., a private nonprofit that provides consulting services to businesses looking to expand or relocate to Maine, started working with Nordic Aquafarms, evaluating locations and opening talks with cities along the Maine coast before ultimately deciding on Belfast.

Permitting is expected to happen over the next few months, with construction starting in 2019. The facility should open with partial capacity in 2020, growing in phases until it produces about 66 million pounds of salmon each year. It’s expected to bring about 60 jobs to the area.

The farm is expected to be an end-to-end operation, meaning it will handle everything from hatching to harvesting and possibly processing the fish. Heim said there’s a chance that Nordic Aquafarms could partner with another company to cut and smoke the fish, but it could also handle that process itself.

Belfast also is home to Ducktrap River of Maine, a seafood products company that specializes in smoked salmon and recently started work on an expansion for those operations.

Heim said that his company is in the midst of building Europe’s largest indoor aquaculture farm. The Belfast facility, expected to be about five times the size, would dwarf that project.

This would be Maine’s second salmon aquaculture site. Cooke Aquaculture raises salmon in open water pens in Machiasport.

Atlantic Sapphire, a subsidiary of one of Nordic’s Norwegian competitors, is building its own large-scale salmon farm in Miami, Florida. That site is expected to pump out about 22 million pounds of salmon when it opens in 2019, according to SeafoodSource. That could ultimately grow to 90,000 tons annually in later phases.

Nordic Aquafarms focuses solely on land-based aquaculture, meaning it raises the salmon in indoor pools, rather than open pens offshore. That model helps control the risk of disease or contamination among the fish population, gives tighter control of the conditions fish are raised in, and eliminates the chances that the fish might escape and damage surrounding ecosystems, according to Heim.

Heim said he wants Belfast’s facility to be “environmentally responsible,” recycling waste, powered with renewable energy sources, and discharging water that’s free of any chemicals or medications. He said he’s considering using Tesla semi-trucks for regional delivery of Nordic’s products.

A portion of the 40-acre site the company plans to buy for the facility is owned by the Belfast Water District, which would relocate. The rest is owned by a private landowner. The Little River Trail runs through the area as well, but the path will remain open to the public, according to city officials.

The company will purchase water from the district, which uses groundwater wells as its sole water source, but could also tap into a nearby above-ground reservoir fed by the Little River that the district hasn’t used in about 30 years. Thomas Kittredge, Belfast’s economic development director, said the water district is confident the water supply is more than adequate, though proving that will be part of the permitting and approval process.

More information on water sources and what kind of capacity the company would need will be revealed as the company pushes forward with permitting, planning and numerous public meetings that will precede construction.

Belfast has a long history in fisheries and food production. It was a longtime hub for poultry processing, known for its large downtown factories fed by poultry farms scattered across the county. Chicken feathers blew through the streets and a sometimes oppressive odor carried on the wind. When that industry collapsed in the 1980s, Belfast went into a long, slow recovery and has pushed to redefine itself. The city went on to court call centers and smaller manufacturing industries, as well as redevelop its downtown in a push to draw tourism.

“Today, Belfast takes another step forward,” City Manager Joe Slocum told the crowd. He turned to Heim and thanked him for bringing his company to Belfast.

“As you invest in us, we will invest in you,” Slocum added. “It’s a great day for Belfast and all its amazing pieces.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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