BUCKSPORT, Maine — Maine suddenly finds itself at the heart of a fledgling U.S. industry, as a second company pushes to build a huge land-based aquafarm to feed a growing appetite for Atlantic salmon.
Whole Oceans, a Maine-based company that has been working behind the scenes for six years to find a place to build an indoor aquaculture facility, signed an agreement Thursday to purchase most of the former Verso paper mill site in Bucksport.
Once it’s up and running, the farm should produce about 20,000 tons of Atlantic salmon each year, according to Whole Oceans CEO Robert Piasio. He expects a $250 million investment over time as new facilities and capacity are added.
“We literally couldn’t have sketched a better site than this one in Bucksport,” Piasio said during a recent interview.
Site prep could start as soon as mid-August, with the first fish entering the facility in 2019 and the first harvest about 24 months later. Whole Oceans expects to employ more than 200 workers with more hires in future years when it adds a feed mill and starts more labor-intensive processing operations.
Just last month, Norwegian seafood producer Nordic Aquafarms, announced plans to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms in Belfast. Together, the companies expect to produce about 53,000 tons of fish each year, meeting a little more than 10 percent of U.S. demand. Both see potential to grow well beyond that.
Americans eat about 500,000 tons of salmon each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service. About 95 percent of that fish is imported, farmed fish that’s shipped from abroad. These imports come almost entirely from Norway, Chile and Canada.
The primary means of farming these salmon has been to raise them in open-water pens, a method that has drawn criticism from conservation and environmental groups. Having such concentrated groups of fish restricted to a small area can cause damage to the seafloor and increase the risk of diseases and spread of pests. If penned fish escape, they can throw off the balance of local ecosystems.
Maine already has a net pen industry, but it’s relatively small.
In more recent years, as the price of land-based aquaculture technology dropped, European aquaculture companies started raising the fish through the early stages of life in indoor tanks. They noticed this increased chances of survival when fish are introduced to offshore pens later in life.
Now, with the costs of permitting and safeguarding offshore pens increasing and the price of technology needed for indoor aquaculture continuing to decline, more companies are turning to indoor tanks for the duration of the salmon’s life cycle. This allows raisers to control water quality, limit or eliminate the use of medicines and pesticides, collect waste for use as fertilizer, and recycle and filter wastewater from the fish tanks.
“You can grow a healthier, more environmentally friendly product at the same price,” Piasio said. “That’s why you’re seeing this sort of rush into this new technology.”
Worldwide, the importance of fish and other seafood as a protein source is expected to boom as the human population continues to climb, according to the United Nations. Fish is the most efficient, sustainable animal protein to grow. Raising beef takes about 8 pounds of grain for every pound cattle weight gain. In pork, that ratio is about 4-to-1, and chicken 2-to-1. For every pound of feed put into raising salmon, you get nearly equal growth in production.
Nordic and Whole Oceans will be joined by another large-scale, land-based salmon operation in Miami, Florida, where a company called Atlantic Sapphire is building a $350 million indoor farm. Sapphire expects to produce about 10,000 tons of salmon annually once it’s up and running.
While all three of these large-scale salmon farms are coming online around the same time, none seem worried about crowding the market. Having a “cluster” of farms along the East Coast could serve as a boon for business and spark a much larger American salmon industry, according to Piasio.
“This opportunity in the U.S. is far larger than one, two, three, six or 10 entrants,” Piasio said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity and it’s a long-term strategy for the entire US industry to make a dent in that 500,000 ton number. That’s a big number.”
The shrinking prices of indoor aquaculture tech is likely to draw more entrants into the industry in the coming decade, but these three companies appear to have won the race to become the first in the U.S.
Because Nordic, Whole Oceans and Sapphire won’t have to ship their salmon overseas, they’ll be able to sell a fresher product at a lower price. Piasio said there’s already been high interest and demand for the fish.
“We’ve presold 100 percent of our inventory for 10 years,” he said.
Paper to scales
For Bucksport, Whole Oceans’ proposed development presents at least a partial answer to the question of what the future holds for one of the state’s largest shuttered industrial sites.
When the Verso mill closed at the end of 2014, Bucksport, which guarded its identity as a mill town for more than 80 years, set about ensuring its survival by finding its new role.
“The community itself had already moved through the grieving process,” Town Manager Susan Lessard said. “They didn’t wallow in it.”
They started by forming downtown community and arts organizations, trying to fill vacant storefronts and make the town a more attractive place to do business. Local organizers envisioned a vibrant, year-round, full-service community that didn’t entirely depend on what happened in the future at the mill site but could thrive in its own right.
The shuttered mill wasn’t the focus of their efforts, and many people in town realized they needed to survive regardless of what happened there, Lessard added.
AIM Development, a subsidiary of a Canadian scrap metal firm, bought the site for $58 million in 2015 and started tearing down sections of the mill. Demolition largely ground to a halt a year later, as AIM started looking for new contractors to continue the process, and large portions of the mill still stand.
Whole Oceans will buy the majority of the northern area of the mill site, which is largely cleared, for an undisclosed price. AIM will continue to own the southern portion, where the mill’s remnants still stand. It’s unclear when demolition might proceed.
Piasio said the former mill is an ideal location. A freshwater pipeline that formerly served the mill stretches from Silver Lake directly to the site, which also has easy access to the Penobscot River’s saltier water. AIM will retain ownership of Silver Lake and the mill’s former pipeline, but Whole Oceans will have access, according to Piasio.
The Penobscot River, which will be another water source for the fish farm, is contaminated with mercury — the result of decades of dumping by the former HoltraChem chemical plant about 10 miles upriver in Orrington.
Piasio said Whole Oceans was aware of that contamination and that the water will be thoroughly filtered to remove any metals before being pumped into the fish tanks. The fish feed will be produced at the facility, meaning, unlike their counterparts in the wild, the fish won’t come into contact with mercury or other pollutants at any point in their life cycles, Piasio added.
In 2016, Whole Oceans was discussing the possibility of a land-based farm at Harpswell’s Mitchell Field, a former Navy fuel depot turned development site, according to The Forecaster. At the same time, Whole Oceans was in talks with Bucksport officials and the new owners of the mill site. When the Harpswell proposal fell through, talks in Bucksport picked up pace.
Lessard said Whole Oceans is an ideal fit for the mill site. The town was hoping to find an “environmentally friendly industrial application” fronted by a company that wanted to become a key cog in the community.
Piasio said Whole Oceans aspires to become Bucksport’s next “hundred-year industry.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.
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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the projected capacity of the Atlantic Sapphire farm in Florida. It’s expected to produce 10,000 tons of salmon per year.