Nordic Aquafarms begins process for Maine-based salmon farm

Norway’s Nordic Aquafarms have started the long process of making its vision of building one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms a reality.

The company’s proposal to build a USD 150 million (EUR 120 million) land-based aquaculture facility in Belfast, Maine, U.S.A., would require approvals from multiple regulatory bodies, including the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). On a more local level, the company needs to purchase 40 acres of property on the outskirts of the town, get local zoning laws changed in order to allow the proposed use, and settle on a preferred site by drilling multiple groundwater test wells.

One early step in the process occurred on 20 March, as Belfast’s city councilors considered the zoning changes that would be necessary for the new facility. Intended to be located along the Little River, just off of Belfast Bay, the location would require changes to zoning to allow the processing of fish, putting in a building height limit of 50 feet, increasing the percentage of property that could have impervious surfaces (such as parking lots or buildings), setting building setback requirements, and more.

Even if the city passes the new zoning rules, Nordic Aquafarms will then have to apply for the appropriate permits to build the facility. That process will involve careful review by the city.

Another step kicked off on 30 March, as the MPUC met with the Belfast Water District to look over the company’s proposal from a utilities perspective at a technical conference. Nordic Aquafarms hopes to acquire land that the water district currently owns, and would also require a significant amount of water in its day-to-day operations.

Belfast Water District Superintendent Keith Pooler said that he has no worries at all about the facility’s water needs.

“Belfast water is fortunate in that we do have a very large and robust aquifer that feeds the city of Belfast,” he said.

The city, Pooler said, has a history of industrial facilities using large amounts of water. Throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and parts of the ‘80s the small city of 6,600 people had multiple poultry processing plants, among other things, drawing large amounts of water.

“The two wells that we still have right now used to produce close to 600-million gallons a year,” he said. Throughout that time, even during periods of drought, water was never a problem and they never had to ask anyone to conserve.

These days, those wells have an average draw of around 240-million gallons. Given past capacity, they could easily double or triple that amount if need be.

“The capacity is there, and it’s been proven through years and years and years of pumping,” Pooler said. “I think it would be a win-win for the City of Belfast and the Belfast water district.”

The company has already promised to purchase 26 acres of water district property at fair market value, and enter into a six-year contract for water supply with the district.

In addition to the contract, the company has been drilling and testing groundwater wells throughout the property. Although heavy snowfall in March delayed the process somewhat, the company said it that some productive wells have already been identified.

“Testing of the wells to verify sustainable withdrawal will continue into April and will be key to reaching a final decision on the location,” stated Nordic in a newsletter.

According to MPUC spokesperson Harry Lanthear, any information about whether the commission will approve the proposal or not has to wait until the final decision, which needs to be made by 30 May. That process will involve consulting with the water district as well as any organizations that file to intervene on the proposal, including the city itself and public advocates.

“The way this case will likely go is the staff of the PUC will analyze all the data and make a recommendation, and that recommendation will go to our three commissioners, and they will make a formal decision,” Lanthear said. He expects to make the 30 May deadline “without a problem.”

Yet another regulatory hurdle would be determining what regulations the farm would come under through the Endangered Species Act. Currently, wild Atlantic salmon are an endangered species, and come under strict protections.

While Nordic Aquafarms plans to use land-based methods, it’s unclear what sort of regulatory issues they may run into.

"This is the first time land-based aquaculture will raise imported Atlantic salmon at a facility in Maine. We have just begun coordinating with NOAA, with whom we share joint jurisdiction on the endangered Atlantic salmon, and with other state and federal agencies," said Meagan Racey, public affairs specialist for the USFWS. "We look forward to learning more about these projects and taking a holistic look at them as we continue efforts to recover the endangered Atlantic salmon."

The company has big plans for the Belfast-based site. The project is eventually intended to have full end-to-end operations, from hatcheries to fish processing. The total investment will be in the ballpark of USD 450 million (EUR 361 million) to USD 500 million (EUR 401 million), as reported in the Portland Press Herald.

Throughout the project, the company said that it would remain engaged with the community. The first informational meeting was held on 21 Feb. in Belfast, and an estimated 250 people attended to learn about the project and ask questions. Nordic said they plan to hold meetings on a “regular basis.”

“Nordic Aquafarms will be transparent in its further planning and will on a regular basis be present in Belfast to engage with local stakeholders, hold information meetings, and will also publish information on this (informational website) on a regular basis,” wrote the company.

Regular newsletters, and a community meeting in May, are also in the works for the community.

If all goes according to plan, the company said construction of their facilities could commence as early as 2019. Nordic Aquafarms’ current plan is to commit USD 4 million (EUR 3.25 million) to the permitting process in 2018 to help make that start date a reality. Once plans and permits are finalized, construction will be over two to three phases on a seven-year timeline.


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