An artist's rendering of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms land-based salmon facility in Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

On July 17, after an occasionally arduous two-year process, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection issued the first of four draft orders that will allow Nordic Aquafarms to commence construction of a $500 million state-of-the-art, sustainable land-based salmon farm in Belfast. At full capacity, the facility will produce roughly 33,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year — equivalent to 7 percent of the U.S. salmon market.

This outcome is long overdue and a major strategic victory for the state of Maine.

As an extension of my role as president of the University of New England, it has been my honor to serve on Gov. Janet Mills’ Economic Recovery Committee, where I chair the Subcommittee on Education and Workforce. Just the fact that these two areas are addressed by a single committee speaks to how tightly linked they are in the minds of policy makers and in the lived experience of job-seekers.

In the 21st century, university leaders can no longer barricade themselves inside their ivory towers, presiding over academic abstractions. To thrive, educational institutions must embed themselves within a real-world web of social and economic arrangements, forging intimate ties to the communities they serve. One of the ways universities in general, and the University of New England in particular, helps ensure its graduates will be well prepared to meet the demands of an ever-evolving workforce is by emphasizing hands-on, experiential learning through programs such as internships.

Strong industry partnerships enhance the student learning experience, providing internships and employment opportunities for students. Graduates in turn supply brain-power and become part of a nimble, well-trained workforce in a state with a chronic shortage of talent. This leads to a healthy symbiosis, whereby the well-being of the university and that of the surrounding communities are mutually reinforcing.

That is why I encouraged the university’s marine science experts to testify as “intervenors” on behalf of Nordic Aquafarms as the project application wound its way through the permitting process.

Maine has a unique opportunity — one we must not squander — to become a leader in sustainable land-based aquaculture. We have 3,500 miles of cold-water coastline, abundant access to clean fresh water and proximity to large North American consumer markets. Our state is also home to several internationally recognized academic and marine leadership institutions that are dedicated to growing sustainable aquaculture technologies. And as a brand, Maine quite deservedly evokes highly desirable associations with fresh seafood in the public mind.

The state’s 10-year strategic economic development plan cites aquaculture as an innovative and high-growth industry. And in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, what was once merely a solid economic bet has evolved into a critical imperative as we consider COVID-19-related disruptions to Maine’s economy and to our food supply chain.

While supply chains are a subject to which many of us gave nary a second thought prior to the pandemic, we are now all keenly interested in the subject — and with good reason. The pandemic has revealed a global food supply chain under serious stress, and food security must be a top priority for any sensible long-term economic policy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that approximately 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S is imported.

More good news comes from the fact that the Belfast project brings numerous environmental advantages. Land-based recirculating aquaculture systems use proven technology to avoid virtually all of the issues associated with sea-based salmon pens. In a highly controlled environment, the fish have no disease and no sea lice; all waste — a huge source of pollution in sea-based aquaculture — is collected within the system and converted to biogas; and there is no possibility of farmed fish escaping into the wild.

There are other environmental pluses, including the low carbon footprint per serving relative to salmon that is flown to the U.S. by jet from Europe. Salmon produced in Maine will be only one “shipment day” away from major markets such as Portland, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

The Nordic Aquafarms project bodes well for our collective future in terms of jobs, our food supply, and reduced environmental impact, and it elevates the Maine coast as a hub for this critical rising industry. This is a huge win for the people of Maine, and for seafood lovers around the world.

James D. Herbert is the president of the University of New England.