BELFAST, Maine — As Trudy Miller of Northport listened to the debate over Belfast’s proposed land-based salmon farm that has roiled the community for a year and a half, she started to feel as if something important was being overlooked: the economy.
To be more specific, Miller wanted to know what the economic effects could be if the Nordic Aquafarms facility is permitted and built. She figured a project that invests as much as $500 million in the community would be a big deal, but details seemed lost in the hubbub over the potential environmental effects and land use lawsuits.
That’s why she sponsored and organized a roundtable discussion Tuesday night at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, introducing it by saying the community has “been subjected to a relentless campaign of negativity about this project” that has seemed like “being nibbled to death by ducks.”
“People decided to speak out over the raging ducks in a number of ways,” Miller said. “I wanted to do something that felt proactive and educational for the community, so I conceived of having this discussion about the economic effects from the Nordic project.”
The 80 or so people in attendance heard a lot about those from the panelists, including Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association and Parker Hadlock, the general manager of Pittsfield-based construction firm Cianbro, a Belfast city councilor and a college student.
Watch: Why so many fish farms are slated to open in Maine
Absent from the panel discussion was vocal opposition. At many other meetings and hearings held by Nordic Aquafarms and the city, opponents have lodged their sharp concerns that the project is too big, too untested, and too potentially damaging to Penobscot Bay and the environment to build it in the first place.
And although the Norwegian-owned company has received preliminary permission from the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands to install buried water intake and discharge pipes on submerged lands in Penobscot Bay, it’s not clear sailing for Nordic yet. Two Belfast residents who are opposed to the fish farm and who believe they are the true owners of the intertidal zone in question have filed a civil lawsuit to ask the court to decide who controls the land.
Although Miller did ask the panelists to talk about potential negative impacts, few, if any, were mentioned. Enthusiasm for aquaculture in general and Nordic in particular seemed to be the dominant feeling in the room.
Aquaculture, which includes shellfish, finfish and seaweed, is a fast-growing economic sector in Maine, Belle said. It currently generates about $80 million to $100 million in net value here and employs about 650 to 700 people year-round, including the roughly 250 farms that have started within the past three years but not the state’s three proposed land-based fish farms.
Aquaculture is an industry that’s attracting a lot of young people, he said, and general interest in the sector should help Maine’s working waterfronts to be more resilient. Belle said that he has a vision of the future that includes diverse aquaculture farms, with companies big and small and with many species being raised through different production methods.
“That diversity is what is going to give us resiliency to deal with climate change going forward,” he said.
Hadlock of Cianbro addressed the economics of constructing the fish farm, a project large enough to employ around 200 people for the full build-out. He said a project as big and technically complicated as the farm also matters to Maine because the people involved in its construction will gain skills that would otherwise be hard to get.
“A project like Nordic is wildly important,” he said. “It’ll train a group of people who will be in the industry for 20 years.”
Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley spoke of how important the property tax revenue from the farm would be to the city. Nordic Aquafarms is planning to build it in two phases, with the first involving a roughly $200 million investment and the second increasing that to a total between $400 million and $500 million.
In the first phase, Nordic would pay the city nearly $2 million in property taxes each year, Hurley said, more than Belfast’s top 50 taxpayers combined. The presence of the farm will lower the city’s high tax rate, he said, and allow Belfast to make long-needed infrastructure improvements.
“Right now, we can’t afford to build a sidewalk from Reny’s to the new soup kitchen. We have nothing left to cut in the budget,” he said, adding that Nordic’s investment would be huge for the city. “All of the property tax payers of Belfast would get tax relief. That is our motivation.”
Related: The Fish Are Okay