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Two land-based aquaculture projects proposed in Maine

While small, one- or two-person aquaculture businesses have seen an uptick in Maine in recent years, the state has also been selected as the site for several large, land-based aquaculture projects operated by national and international firms. Land-based aquaculture farms, largely focused on growing Atlantic salmon, have triggered a vehement public response, both for and against, along the coast. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production sector in the world, according to a 2017 University of Maine report, growing 6.2% annually between 2000 and 2012. In Maine, the total economic impact of aquaculture nearly tripled between 2007 and 2017, from $50 million to $137 million. It has only been in the past three years, however, that companies came to Maine with plans to build large land-based facilities in the state. Land-based aquaculture depends on recycling the water used to raise a marine species. A Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) allows the operator to control the entire environment in which a species such as salmon is raised in order to maximize growth and health. The RAS filters out waste products and controls the water chemistry, temperature and other elements, much as land-based holding facilities for lobsters do. By growing fish outside of the ocean, a land-based aquaculture facility can avoid natural problems such as sea lice or diseases that plague salmon, which are often treated with chemicals. “RAS systems have a number of advantages and challenges,” said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. “RAS systems allow more environmental control and can help farmers provide optimal conditions to the animals or plants they are growing. They may help increase the biosecurity of farms by reducing the risk that parasites or pathogens get into the facility from the wild.”

Recirculating aquaculture systems allow fish, such as salmon, to grow in land based tanks. Photo courtesy of the Global Aquaculture Alliance.

RAS technology has been used for at least 25 years; in Europe the technology has been used to grow European sea bass, halibut, trout and catfish. The University of Maine has operated a land-based RAS in Franklin to grow salmon for the past 12 years. A 2019 study by The Nature Conservancy stated that RAS salmon systems “offer better environmental performance, higher production capacities per unit area and greater control over production outcomes than traditional penstocks.” The scale of projects proposed in Maine, however, has raised concerns at the local level. On September 3, the Bucksport Planning Board gave its approval to Whole Oceans’ application for a salmon aquaculture facility on the former Verso Paper mill site. The paper mill abruptly shut down at the end of 2014, leaving the town with a vast tract of empty buildings and a sharp drop in tax revenues. In May, Whole Oceans, a subsidiary of Emergent Holdings of Portland, announced that it had closed on purchase of 104 acres of the mill property from American Iron and Metal Development USA LLC. Emergent Holdings was formed exclusively to invest in aquaculture in North America. The $75 million first phase of the facility is designed to grow just over 5,000 tons, or 11 million pounds, of Atlantic salmon. Whole Oceans plans to construct a freshwater building to house aquaculture systems for hatching salmon eggs, along with freshwater and saltwater systems to support fish growth for the first 10 months. One grow-out building of 350,000 square feet will house tanks and equipment to raise salmon to 10 to 12 pounds in weight. A second, 430,000-square-foot grow-out building will house additional recirculating units and infrastructure. At the end of construction in ten years, Whole Oceans plans to have 945,000 square feet of building area with a production capacity of 10,000 tons of salmon a year. Total cost for the project is estimated to be $180 million. Some are concerned that RAS technology has not been proven capable of growing so many fish at one time to market size. In fact, Emergent Holdings hoped to purchase Kuterra, a land-based salmon company started by the Native American ‘Namgis First Nation in 2012 on Vancouver Island, British Columbia in order to obtain that company’s RAS knowledge. Kuterra is the first company using RAS to grow salmon from eggs to eight pounds in size. But the company has struggled. Despite $9.5 million in Canadian government and private funds, it shut down for several months in 2018. Additional financial support allowed the company to reopen and, it stated in a press release, it still anticipates harvesting 70,000 salmon this fall. The tribe voted in July against the Emergent offer. Only five North American companies currently are growing Atlantic salmon in RAS: Atlantic Sapphire of Homestead, Florida; Cape D’Or Sustainable Seafoods of Nova Scotia; Kuterra; Superior Fresh of Wisconsin; and Sustainable Blue of Nova Scotia. Atlantic Sapphire announced this year that it plans its first commercial harvest, of 9,000 tons, early in 2020. In Belfast, south of Bucksport, another firm, Nordic Aquafarms, announced in early 2018 its plan for a large land-based salmon facility on 56 acres of land off Route 1. The facility would draw water from Penobscot Bay to grow its proposed 33,000 metric tons of salmon per year within ten years. The site would include nine buildings, to house hatcheries, freshwater juvenile facilities (smolt buildings), grow-out facilities, office space, a central utility plant, and a water treatment plant. Phase one would result in production of 13,000 tons of salmon per year. Total cost for the facility is estimated to be $150 million. Response from Belfast residents has been largely negative. Those opposed to the project cite the possibility of damage to the local water table, pollution of Penobscot Bay and numerous other environmental costs in their arguments against Nordic Aquafarms’ plans. At the moment, it’s unclear what the future holds for land-based aquaculture projects in the state. “The challenges that RAS systems face are technical complexity, high capital investment requirements and high operating costs,” Belle noted. “In recent years, however, RAS systems have made big gains in meeting these challenges through significant technical innovation and operational experience.

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