Kingfish Zeeland details plans for new US RAS yellowtail farm in Jonesport, Maine

Published on
November 21, 2019

“Welcome to Maine.”

The line was uttered by Jonesport resident, Look Lobster vice president, and former town selectman William “Bimbo” Look to Ohad Maiman, the CEO of Kingfish Zeeland, at the end of an hour-long informational presentation by the company on Wednesday, 20 November. At the meeting, Maiman’s Kats, The Netherlands-based firm announced it will seek approval to build a recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) yellowtail farm in Jonesport, with the goal of improving its access to the U.S. East Coast market.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 40 residents turned up at the local library for the public hearing in the small coastal town, where the largest industry is fishing, primarily for lobsters and scallops. An informal poll taken after the meeting indicated overwhelming support from the audience for the project.

Look said he hoped Kingfish Zeeland will receive approval to build a 15- to 20-acre, state-of-the-art RAS facility on a 90-acre waterfront site east of town, telling SeafoodSource the project would be a major boost to the local economy.

“We want ‘em here,” he said. “We need the industry.”

During his talk, Maiman laid out a broad outline of his company’s plans for the facility. The first phase of development calls for construction of facilities capable of producing 6,000 MT of yellowtail per year, a similar amount to the current annual output of Kingfish Zeeland’s existing farm in The Netherlands. (This summer, the company began work to expand that farm to a 1,000 MT annual production, with the goal of eventually expanding to harvest 5,000 MT of yellowtail by 2021.) A second phase of the Maine project, which would involve increasing capacity and a hatchery, is contingent upon the completion of the project’s first phase, including a successful ramp-up of its presence in the U.S. marketplace, Maiman said. If that happens, the Jonesport farm could be expanded to an even larger size.

In total, the project is expected to cost an estimated USD 110 million (EUR 100 million), according to Kingfish Zeeland CFO Itay Young. Although a contractor has not yet been chosen for the work, if approved, the construction will most likely be done by Danish firm Billund Aquaculture, which is currently building Whole Oceans’ Atlantic salmon farm in Bucksport, Maine, Young said. Funding has been secured from sources including individual investors, other seafood companies, and the financial sector, he added.

“In the past, we have worked with high-net-worth individuals and families … but we are moving away from that into industry players. One of them [is] a well-known banking institution looking to move into the aquaculture sector, who believes in the concept of recirculating systems … [Another] is a very well-known family who are the owners of one of Europe’s largest supermarket chains,” Young said.

The announcement of the project’s financial backers will likely come within the next few weeks, Young said.

“We expect the profile of these names to give comfort,” he added. “We’re looking at long-term capital. We’re not looking at hedge funds with a short-term investment horizon.”

Maiman acknowledged the limited record of success for RAS projects globally, but said his company has a proven track record of successful and profitable operation.

“It has been quite a painful road for the sector over the last 20 to 30 years, littered with quite a few failures,” he said. “But we are very happy to say that our design has worked and things are going well, and that was the critical reason for us to start expanding, both expanding capacity in the Netherlands and to develop plans to move into the U.S.”

Young said the company’s Maine operations and its fish will come under the “Kingfish Maine” brand, similar to how the company has branded its fish grown in the Netherlands as Dutch yellowtail. The species (Seriola lalandi), which is also known as hamachi or hiramasa, has great potential, and will be produced in Maine both as a one- to two-pound, center-of-the-plate whole fish, and at the five- to six-pound size for the sushi/sashimi market, Maiman said.

“We believe that we can offer a local, fresher product at a competitive price,” he said.

The fish produced in Maine will be certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Global Aquaculture Association’s Best Aquaculture Practices program, and its operations will be monitored by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the state’s Department of Marine Resources. Maiman told the crowd in Jonesport Kingfish Zeeland chose Maine for its pristine waters and commitment to environmental protection and said the company will “operate by the highest environmental standards.”

“We will go the extra mile wherever possible on sustainability,” he said. “These are the kind of choices that are not necessarily too popular with our board or with investors because they typically cost more, but we’ve found that it’s important for how we feel about operating the farm but also about how our clients and the people around our farm feel about how we operate.”

Maiman said Kingfish Zeeland began its search for a U.S. site more than a year ago and looked into 22 sites up and down the Eastern seaboard, eventually narrowing its choice down to sites in Jonesport and Gouldsboro, Maine. Jonesport was chosen because of advantages with the specific site chosen, the community and its close ties to the seafood industry, and opportunities it sees to work with the local high school and universities to create workforce training opportunities. When complete, the first phase of the project will create 70 full-time jobs, with 60 of those low-skill jobs and around 10 requiring an advanced degree or extensive training, Maiman said.

“For us, it was a bit of love at first site when we first looked [at Jonesport]. But the most important step of this is whether you’d accept us here,” Maiman said. “This is not a speculative mission. If you will have us, we will build here.”

Later, he added, “If we build here, we are here to stay. This is not something we can move overnight.”

The audience, including several of the town’s selectmen, were largely in support of the project, based off comments made during the question-and-answer portion of the presentation and in an informal show-of-hands vote of support for the project as the meeting ended.

Look said he had researched Kingfish Zeeland and was satisfied by the company’s initial presentation, especially as it concerned their environmental impact. A few residents expressed concern to SeafoodSource about the amount of water to be discharged from the facility – roughly estimated by  Kingfish Zeeland at 378,000 gallons per hour, or more than nine million gallons per day – but said they were assuaged by promises by the company to ensure the water was cleaned of any impurities before discharge. Rocky Alley, the president of the Maine Lobstering Union and an active lobster and scallop fisherman, said he was concerned about the temperature of the water being discharged, as warmer water could push lobsters away from the discharge zone. He said as many as 50 of Jonesport’s 300 lobster fishermen could be affected by the discharge.

But Bimbo Look, the former selectman, said he trusted the company to be a responsible steward of the local environment.

“I’ve looked into them and they’re a good, solid company,” he said.

Look said the town has been losing residents and is in desperate need of the economic boost Kingfish Zeeland will provide.

“The townspeople are for the most part would love to have ‘em,” Look said. “Our schools are on the decline – we don’t have the kids in the school system and we’re getting to the critical point where we need industry to come in. This is a godsend for Jonesport.”

Photo courtesy of Kingfish Zeeland

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