Kingfish Zeeland's land-based yellowtail farm in the Netherlands produces 600 tons of fish a year. The company would like to build a larger land-based fish farm somewhere in Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Kingfish Zeeland

The Dutch entrepreneur who would like to build a land-based yellowtail fish farm somewhere in Maine said that the relentless opposition that some have shown to Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed Belfast salmon farm has made him proceed here with caution.

Ohad Maiman of Kingfish Zeeland said in a phone interview last week that company officials believe they have found two viable sites on the Maine coast after reviewing 22. But he does not want to identify those communities yet in hopes of avoiding the same kind of response that Nordic, a Norwegian-based company that is working to build a $500 million facility, has grappled with since announcing its plans in January 2018.

“We are now starting to approach the local communities before we go public with it,” Maiman said. “It’s very critical for us to come into a community that wants us there. We’ve heard about Nordic.”

Otherwise, he feels good about the prospects for a Kingfish Zeeland aquaculture venture in Maine. In the Netherlands, the 4-year-old company operates on a commercial scale in Zeeland, the westernmost, least populated province. It can produce about 600 tons of Pacific yellowtail a year, which it sells throughout most of Europe.

High demand for the product means that the company has had to limit the amounts that customers can buy. It’s now starting its first expansion in the Netherlands.

[The coast of Maine could get another fish farm]

The Maine project, if built, would cost around $111 million, could create as many as 100 jobs and would produce 6,000 tons of fish annually to start. If all went well, it could eventually expand production to 15,000 tons, Maiman said.

Last June, the Zeeland facility became the world’s first recirculating aquaculture system, or RAS, fish farm to be awarded a Best Aquaculture Practices certification from the Global Aquaculture Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocacy, education and leadership in responsible aquaculture. Kingfish Zeeland was also the first land-based yellowtail fish farm to be certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, an independent, international nonprofit organization.

Kingfish Zeeland has keen interest in branching out to the United States, and the two possible sites in Maine fit the required technical parameters, which include at least 30 acres on a plot with direct access to seawater.

“Everything else is secondary,” he said, but added a caution. “It comes down to the acceptance of the community.”

‘The big red flag’

The world of land-based fish farming is a small one, and Maiman and others who work in it are familiar with Nordic Aquafarms’ experience in Belfast. The Norwegian company is still in the process of applying for its permits, as opponents have worked to slow it down through the regulatory agencies and in the court of public opinion. And that is not what developers, or investors, want to see, Maiman said.

Credit: Courtesy of Kingfish Zeeland

“Once we fundraise and have the expectation of build-out, adding unnecessary time to the build-out is a problem,” Maiman said. “That is frankly the big red flag.”

Those who oppose the Belfast plan believe Nordic Aquafarms’ project is too big, too experimental and too potentially dangerous for Penobscot Bay and midcoast Maine. They are concerned that trees will have to be cut to build the fish farm and worried about the treated effluent that will be discharged into the bay.

[How Maine became a magnet for land-based fish farms]

Among numerous concerns they cite is the idea that when Nordic places its intake and outflow pipes, it could disturb mercury from the HoltraChem site in Orrington that has made its way down the Penobscot River into Penobscot Bay.

Alice Elliott, the Portland-based chapter director of Sierra Club Maine, said that the chance that mercury would be disturbed when the pipes are put in place is the primary reason why the group is opposing Nordic’s plans. The Sierra Club’s state chapters are primarily membership-driven, and its opposition reflects the concerns of its membership.

The chapter has other reasons for opposing Nordic, too, she said, including concerns about the project’s carbon footprint and a belief among some of its midcoast members that Nordic has not acted fairly or transparently about its plans. But those are secondary, she said.

“Primarily the issue really is the mercury,” she said. “The mercury would be disturbed and move up into the water where it will react with the bacteria. Then fish and seafood become unsafe to eat.”

But this view is not held by others who see the project differently. Don Perkins, the president of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, based in Portland, said he thinks concerns like this are very likely overblown.

“The construction impact will be a very temporary impact, and will be very, very local to where the digging is done,” he said. “I suspect it will be negligible. A lot of water moves through that bay, and the footprint of the digging they do will be very limited. It’s easy to portray scare tactics about this.”

‘Part of being an open society’

Perkins, who described himself as a staunch environmentalist, said that he has been watching the aquaculture industry develop for 30 years and served on a legislative task force 15 years ago when the state wanted to take a deep look at how it is regulated.

“Maine has a history of regulating aquaculture in what I would call a precautionary, conservative manner,” he said. “Maine is generally described outside of Maine as ‘the best practice state’ for aquaculture. People who don’t see it from outside the state often don’t have that perspective.”

He said that the fact that Maine is finding itself at the forefront of proposals that use RAS technology to grow fish in land-based tanks is a “remarkable opportunity.”

“It’s interesting that Maine is really on the forefront of what seems to be the moment that industry is betting we’ve gotten to that point … where on-shore recirculating aquaculture would become economically viable as well as ecologically preferable,” Perkins said. “Ultimately our concern is, from a coastal community point of view, how does Maine diversify its coastal marine economy, and kind of create a 21st century fishing economy?”

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Perkins said that he believes that it is the community’s job to ask questions about proposals such as Nordic’s and the other land-based fish farms that want to come to Maine.

He said that when he read the Nordic permit, he felt impressed, rather than afraid.

“I was stunned by its thoroughness and its completeness. They did an outstanding job with that permit application,” he said, adding that his non-profit is not involved with Nordic or the other RAS projects.

The application struck him and others from the institute as so well-done that they felt like they needed to speak out publicly in favor of it from a “disinterested, science-based, objective” point of view.

“It’s really frustrating if you’re on either side of the issue, but it’s part of being in an open society,” he said. “Each community on the coast of Maine is unique, and different communities react differently to these issues.”

That’s true, Elliott said, adding that she hasn’t heard from members who adamantly support the Belfast project or oppose the one in Bucksport. The Sierra Club’s opposition is narrowly focused on Nordic Aquafarms, but she and other members do have questions about other fish farms. In contrast to Perkins, she believes that Maine regulatory agencies are perhaps not always reliable.

“There’s been a history of not following the law to a T,” she said of the agencies, which is concerning to the Maine chapter. “I don’t think we have a general stance yet [on land-based fish farms]. It’s certainly part of our general thinking for the future. We understand we need to feed the world and fish farms are one way of doing it. We need to make sure that in doing so, we don’t kill the lobster industry.”

Aquaculture experts watching Maine

Still, Belfast’s experience with fish farm opponents is gaining the midcoast city and, to some degree, the entire state of Maine a reputation among aquaculture professionals, according to Maiman. He said the Belfast situation could throw cold water on the state’s ability to play an important role in the growing industry. According to a 2017 University of Maine economic impact report about aquaculture, it is the fastest-growing food production sector in the world, gaining 6.2 percent annually between 2000 and 2012.

[Proposed salmon farm rattles some in Belfast. Another in Bucksport draws few objections.]

“I’ve received quite the same kind of reaction from my colleagues in the sector, basically asking us if we’re sure” we want to build in Maine, Maiman said. “Maine has all the parameters needed to become a major RAS leader in the U.S., with the caveat of whether the licenses can happen. If they don’t, then companies will go elsewhere.”

Maiman is hoping that his company’s reputation and facts about aquaculture will rule the day, and not what he terms the “non-factual elements,” or what he and other Maine aquaculture experts believe are fears that are not based on facts.

“In our view, the fact that we’re suggesting a very sustainable and overall positive operation, well, we hope that facts matter more than noise,” Maiman said, adding that he feels the company is a valued part of the province of Zeeland. “We welcome concerns and questions … We’re trying to think of how to get the message from the community in Zeeland to Maine. We hope to become a valued member of the community in Maine as well.”