An artist's rendering of the Nordic Aquafarms salmon farm planned for Belfast. Credit: Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

A national organization that strongly opposes siting a land-based salmon farm in Belfast has released an analysis that argues the way the fish are fed will be inefficient, unsustainable and potentially unhealthy to people and oceans.

However, Nordic Aquafarms, the Norwegian-based company that would like to build one of the world’s largest indoor salmon farms near the Little River, has decried the analysis, deeming it misleading, inaccurate and based on bad science. The project has been a lightning rod for opponents, who fear it is too big and the science is too unproven for Belfast.

Claudette Bethune, a California-based scientist who works for a pharmaceutical company, wrote the analysis for the Organic Consumers Association. The Minnesota-based nonprofit organization advocates for the phase-out of factory farms, among other goals, and is acting as a pass-through organization to funnel $2,500 from local salmon farm opponents to a GoFundMe campaign that is helping to fund a lawsuit against the city. The lawsuit, filed by project neighbors Donna Broderick and Ellie Daniels, who is running a write-in campaign for an open Belfast city council seat, alleges that municipal officials did not follow the proper process in making zoning changes that allowed the project to move forward. According to Daniels, just under $25,000 has been raised for the lawsuit, most of which is small sums of money from area residents.

In her report, Bethune alleges that wild fish are harvested in “ever greater amounts” to produce feed for farmed salmon; that farmed salmon accumulate more toxins from pesticides in their feed than farmed land animals do; and that salmon farming may result in an increase in consumer exposure to pesticides, antibiotic residues and other contaminants.

“We can see that the claims that salmon aquaculture, even on land, is sustainable, more nutritious, or has the potential to feed the world are not founded on actual data or objective results,” Bethune wrote at the conclusion of her four-page analysis.

However, officials from Nordic Aquafarms — and a University of Maine scientist who has no connections to the project — say that Bethune’s claims are the ones that are not founded on data or results.

Ian Bricknell, a professor of aquaculture biology and founding director of the University of Maine’s Aquaculture Research Institute, said this week that he found her analysis to be confusing and misleading.

“If it was going to an educated audience, this was dubious at best and should really be disregarded,” he said. “But the problem is it isn’t going to an educated audience. It’s probably going to the public, and it’s one of the ones that’s fueling the misinformation, by taking scientific information, confusing it and saying that everything’s up in the air.”

In her analysis, Bethune writes that fish farming is putting an increased demand on the world’s oceans because the industry requires fish meal and fish oils to feed the farmed fish. Additionally, she posits that feeding fish with vegetables and animal byproducts raises concerns about genetically modified organisms, or GMO foods, and pesticides, in the final product.

“There’s a lot of, I almost don’t like to say the word, greenwashing” about aquaculture, Bethune told the BDN last week.

But officials from Nordic Aquafarms said that her conclusions are questionable and largely based on dated information from net-pen salmon production — not land-based farming.

“Activists are mixing the two together,” the company said in a statement released Monday. “Land-based farming solves many of the historical challenges associated with net pens, including high discharge, fish escapes, sea lice, threat to wild salmon, use of the public’s open ocean areas and more.”

According to Nordic, hardly any of the fish caught for fish meal production are suitable for human consumption, and use of fishmeal and fish oils in fish farming has been decreasing as the industry shifts to using more terrestrial vegetable oils and plant proteins. Insect protein also is starting to make its way into food for farmed fish, the company said.

“The feed industry is continuously innovating and improving to be sustainable and to meet the future needs of the industry, and ultimately the consumers,” the company said in a release.

To date, Nordic Aquafarms has filed an application for just one of several local, state and federal permits that need to be obtained before construction on the project could begin. The company has not yet released specific information about what the salmon would be fed, but Bethune said she based her four-page analysis on conventional salmon feed used in the industry.

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