Despite PR Aqua lawsuit, Whole Oceans renews site work on Maine RAS salmon farm

Whole Oceans Senior Project Manager Mike Thompson

Whole Oceans is beginning site work in preparation for construction of a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) Atlantic salmon farm in Bucksport, Maine, U.S.A.

The company, which is owned by Auburn, Indiana-based Emergent Holdings, first announced a plan to build the farm at the site of a former paper mill site at a cost of USD 250 million (EUR 203 million), with the initial goal of producing 5,000 metric tons (MT) of Atlantic salmon annually, and eventually expanding to produce up to 50,000 MT.

But the project has been on hold for two years, despite receiving approval from the Bucksport Planning Board and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in 2019. Whole Oceans made several key hirings in 2019 and opened an office in Bucksport in August 2020, around which time it said it had planned to break ground, but pushed back the date due to a number of factors, including its acquisition of 10-acre adjoining parcel a year ago that it said necessitated a redesign of the project.

In a statement issued on Thursday, 31 March, 2022, Whole Oceans said it is in the process of finalizing an agreement with a Maine construction company to begin site clean-up, grading, and other work on the property “to prepare the site for the next phases of project development.”

In a subsequent interview with SeafoodSource, Whole Oceans Senior Project Manager Mike Thompson, who joined the company in a full-time role in May 2020 but who has since moved into a part-time consulting position, said Whole Oceans’ plans have not changed.

“We're permitted for 20,000 metric tons per year and that's still the vision. That's what we're approved for with our waste discharge license and we think the site is well-suited for that. So that's the target that we'll be working towards, and all the plans that we're working on … are directed towards that goal,” he said.

Thompson said additional time was needed to reformulate the design of the farm to integrate the additional 10-acre parcel, which will allow the company “a little more real estate to move things around.”

“It's such a huge site, but when you start working at this scale, it actually becomes fairly tight. And so there's a lot of room to work with, but it's not like it's limitless room … [It’s] a jigsaw puzzle of what's the best place for which building between the two lots,” he said.

Thompson declined to comment as to whether a tightening of financing available to the land-based aquaculture sector has had an impact on Whole Oceans’ progressing in building its farm.

“I’ll plead a little ignorance in that – I don't do the financing, but it hasn't slowed things down on the work that I do for Whole Oceans,” Thompson said. “[However,] it’s not so much of a delay in my mind is just taking a step back because of this new opportunity. The market is for the financial people to be looking at, but for me, it's just been moving ahead with how to integrate [the new lot] into the project. And then … the technology for RAS agriculture is changing rapidly. So there's two things going on there. We're integrating lot three and integrating the new technology and that takes time to get it right.”

Thompson confirmed Whole Oceans had switched from using Billund Aquaculture to design and build to the site to PR Aqua, which Emergent Holdings purchased in May 2019 for USD 6.25 million (EUR 5.7 million). Whole Oceans said in its 31 March press release is is now using PR Aqua for its RAS project design and site consultation.

“This is a pivotal moment for Whole Oceans and it’s exciting to see our thoughtful planning moving forward with PR Aqua as our partner,” Whole Oceans Senior Advisor Shayne De Lima said. “PR Aqua is recognized around the world for their innovation, service, and expertise in recirculating aquaculture systems. We are proud to be working with them to advance this project.”

Thompson said PR Aqua “has always been involved in the project from the beginning, and they were in an advisory role when Billund was involved.”

“Then it just became clear that the technology that PR Aqua works with is a little bit different than Billund’s,” he said. “They both work. They're both great companies. But it just became clear that it was time to move PR Aqua from advisory role to the lead designer.”

PR Aqua Chief Technology Officer K.C. Hosler, whose company also recently picked up the role of technology partner for West Coast Salmon, planning a 50,000-metric-ton capacity RAS farm in the U.S. state of Nevada; and the 1,500-MT Taste of BC Aquafarms RAS farm being planned for British Columbia, Canada; said PR Aqua has turned over its planned design to Whole Oceans.

“We took the time afforded to us to design a project based on state-of-the-art technology in order to ensure operational efficiency and commercial sustainability for this project in the emerging RAS industry in the United States,” Hosler said.

Thompson said PR Aqua’s experience on other RAS projects in North America, along with Emergent Holdings involvement running Kuterra Salmon’s RAS facility in Port McNeill, British Columbia, Canada, would bestow important knowledge on the Whole Oceans project.

"PR Aqua was very close to that project from a technical standpoint, and we will benefit from … the R&D aspect of that. We can look at Kuterra and say it's a fully functioning facility, let’s see what's working there and anything else we want to be aware of that we can integrate into our design,” he said.

Thompson declined to comment on a lawsuit filed in July 2021 by PR Aqua’s former owners, Nicholas and Gabriel Pranger, alleging Emergent Holdings defaulted on the terms of its purchasing contract and demanding either full payment of the remaining amount due – more than USD 2.5 million (EUR 2.25 million) – or the return of PR Aqua to their ownership.

“It's not impacting my work and what I do,” he said.

However, in a countersuit filed in September 2021, Emergent Holdings claimed the Prangers failed to perform the services they were contractually bound to provide in the purchase agreement. Specifically, Emergent alleged Nick Pranger’s business plan estimated the Whole Oceans project would cost USD 250 million, but that the project “now stands to cost nearly USD 400 million [EUR 361 million] as a result of Nick’s poor planning and failure to take into consideration numerous pieces of equipment and other materials necessary for the project.”

Emergent also alleged Nicki Pranger persuaded Emergent to invest in the expansion of the Kuterra Salmon facility “based on a business plan for 800 MT of new production on a USD 6.5 million [EUR 5.8 million] budget and later inexplicably changed those plans to contemplate 1,350 MT of new production on a more than USD 37.9 million [EUR 34.2 million] budget.”

Whole Oceans has requested it no longer face any financial obligation to pay future installment payments or balance due under the contract to purchase PR Aqua. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, remains unresolved.

Thompson declined to name anyone in Emergent Holdings’ ownership group – Dale Reicks, the owner of New Hampton, Iowa-based Reicks View Farms and a member of the National Pork Producers Council is listed in the lawsuit as the company’s owner – or in Whole Oceans’ senior management team, but confirmed former CEOs Rob Piasio and Jacob Bartlett, and former president Jason Mitchell, are no longer involved with the company.

“It's just like any kind of normal development project – people play different roles in different phases in the project. Rob and Jacob played really key roles at different points and they're both working on other ventures right now,” he said.

Thompson said Whole Oceans’ staff size has not shrunk in recent years, but rather several full-time staff have shifted into consulting roles

“No, it's more like shifting roles,” he said. “Some other folks have come onto the advisory team. But the biggest thing is people shifting into consulting roles because there's just so much work around the world. I'm working on projects in Europe and elsewhere in the United States. So it's really just a reflection of a limited number of people that have expertise in this type of construction, so you end up working in projects around the world.”

Thompson said once the updated plans for the site are fully permitted by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, which he expects to take place by the end of the year, Whole Oceans wants to begin construction on the farm’s tanks and buildings.

“We don't want to presuppose that we know how long their process will take. But again, the focus for me this year is the site prep-work, which is extensive, and then this permitting process will play out and we'll be ready to move forward,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Whole Oceans


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