Patricia Lojek of Belfast is an enthusiastic member of the pro-Nordic Aquafarms grassroots advocacy group, "The Fish Are Okay." "I have seen nothing negative about this company," she said. "I believe in the process." Credit: Gabor Degre

Belfast residents may have noticed two very different yard signs that have sprouted up around the region, both of which feature fish.

But that’s where the similarities end.

One sign shows a sad-looking fish skeleton and the words “No! NAF,” referring to Nordic Aquafarms. It’s made by Local Citizens for Smart Growth: Salmon Farm, a grassroots group that staunchly opposes the construction of Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed $500 million land-based salmon farm in Belfast, and has been a fixture on some area lawns for months now.

The other sign is different. Its fish is a cheerful orange hue and floats over graceful blue waves, and is emblazoned with the words, “Good for Belfast, Good for Maine,” and “The Fish Are Okay.”

That is the name of another grassroots group, one that recently formed to support aquaculture in Maine and the idea of the fish farm. Organizers of The Fish Are Okay said that they also want to provide a different perspective to the community than the one shared by Smart Growth and Upstream Watch, a second organization that has formed to oppose the project.

[Subscribe to our free morning newsletter and get the latest headlines in your inbox]

Until recently, the battle for public opinion about the fish farm has seemed dominated by opponents, some of whom have not been afraid to speak up at informational meetings, initiate a lawsuit against the city or make legal challenges to Nordic’s permit applications. Lately, though, midcoast residents who feel positively about the project have begun to make their voices heard.

“A lot of us who weren’t so dead-set against it started talking to each other,” Anne Saggese, an organizing member of The Fish Are Okay, said recently. “We realized that there was so much negativity out there that people weren’t paying attention. So we started pushing back a little bit.”

They haven’t stopped. In just more than a month, the group’s Facebook page has grown to nearly 260 people who like it, and members have distributed 100 lawn signs, with a waiting list started for those who want the next batch. They have held meetings, are planning events and have helped to get signatures for a petition in favor of Nordic that a local businessman is going to run as an ad in the Republican Journal, a weekly newspaper.

“What we aim to do is open conversations within the community to talk about those issues that are controversial. Not just Nordic, but all this aquaculture boom that Maine seems to be going through,” Saggese said. “We want to know the truth. If it turns out that this is as safe as we’re told it is, this is a really great opportunity for Belfast.”

‘Really an anomaly’

Ethan Hughes, a Belfast resident who is part of Smart Growth, said recently that he doesn’t agree that the salmon farm is a good opportunity for Belfast or, perhaps, anywhere. He doesn’t think that growing salmon on land will do anything to help world hunger or the man-made environmental disaster he believes is unfolding all around us.

“If we really wanted to help each other, is there a better use of $500 million?” he asked. “Once school’s out, kids in this county don’t know where their next meal is coming from. We’re producing more food, and throwing it out, and the food being thrown away is shipped from Chile and China. That’s where I think the bigger conversations are. We actually have enough food in America to feed everyone, but we’re throwing half of it out.”

Credit: Gabor Degre

Other opponents have said they are fighting against Nordic Aquafarms’ plans because they are concerned about effluent and mercury polluting the bay, about the fear that the company will use too much water and about the belief that Belfast city officials should not have massaged local zoning codes in order to shepherd the project through.

Despite the growth of The Fish Are Okay, Hughes said that he thinks there’s more energy in Smart Growth than there was last summer. Nearly 400 people like the group’s Facebook page, and the same amount of folks have signed a petition urging Nordic Aquafarms to halt what they call its “mega-industrial extractive project.” Additionally, a recent panel discussion at the Belfast Free Library that Smart Growth helped to host about groups opposing what they believe is harmful corporate activity drew a standing-room-only crowd.

[Belfast salmon farm ignites debate about what ‘NIMBY’ actually means]

That kind of activity can generate strength and unity, Hughes said, adding that he is not in favor of anger, divisiveness or judgement, emotions that he has seen arise in the course of the debate over the salmon farm.

“In this initiative, I’ve made mistakes and I’ve tried to apologize,” he said, speaking specifically of a Belfast Planning Board meeting last summer when he refused to cede the floor when he was asked by the chair to do so. “There’s some people not getting involved because they see the anger and judgment. My greatest commitment is to not make anyone an enemy.”

Another opponent, who has recently become involved with Upstream Watch, is Jeffrey Mabee. He and his wife, Judith Grace, found themselves unexpectedly tangled with Nordic’s plan when attorney Kim Ervin Tucker of Upstream Watch found a 1946 deed with a surprise twist. The lawyer believes the deed proves that Mabee and Grace are the true owners of the intertidal land, which Nordic is planning to cross with its water intake and outflow pipes, not the neighbors who are giving Nordic an easement on their own property.

“This is all I talk about. I feel really angry that this company that knows I own the property is pushing the way they are,” Mabee said. “I think the only other thing I’ve been this indignant about is the Vietnam War.”

Credit: Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

But the opposition groups in Belfast are helping him to feel supported.

“It definitely makes me feel less alone,” Mabee said. “It makes me feel like I’m part of a community, which is very important to me. It makes a big difference.”

He does not get that good feeling from The Fish Are Okay. Belfast is a small city, and he has friends and acquaintances who are part of that group, but he feels that they sort of “roll their eyeballs” when he talks about his perspective.

“The only way I can understand that is that they don’t quite get what’s going on,” he said. “Me and the people at The Fish Are Okay just disagree.”

Hughes, who has a long history of environmental activism around the country, said that he has never before seen a grassroots group work not against but to encourage a corporation, which is what he sees happening with The Fish Are Okay.

“It’s really an anomaly,” he said. “For me, it’s kind of astounding and also heart-breaking.”

‘Open to the possibility’

It took a lot to get Saggese, a Belfast baker and diehard local food movement supporter, to get off the sidelines of the debate over the fish farm and speak out in favor of giving Nordic a chance.

“We’ve all had lots of laughs about that,” she said. “All of us have been, like, I can’t believe I’m putting this much time and effort to defending a corporation. It is so counterintuitive to all of us.”

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

She and others said that they were moved to do so in large part because of what they believe has been a campaign of misinformation spread by the opponents. They think this could have undesired other effects of giving the city a bad reputation of being anti-science and anti-business, and that this could stop other businesses or people from wanting to put down roots there.

“That group is making so much noise,” Saggese said of the opponents. “It’s making Belfast sound bad. We sound like a bunch of frothing-at-the-mouth loonies.”

Patricia Lojek of Belfast said she loves to wear her “The Fish Are Okay” pin in hopes of encouraging more conversations with people who might be on the fence. That happened with one of her neighbors, who asked her why she was for the fish farm.

“She had only heard such loud words, and she didn’t take the time to research it. People are hearing all the bad stuff,” Lojek said. “I have seen nothing negative about this company. I believe in the process, and I really don’t believe in misinformation. Over and over and over we see strong words that aren’t accurate.”

Credit: Gabor Degre

Jacki Cassida, another outspoken proponent, lives very close to where the fish farm would be built. She and her husband, Sam Cassida, have agreed to lease 12 acres to Nordic for a buffer zone, a decision she said they made only after researching the company and the fish farm. People have accused her of only being in favor of the company because of her family’s financial stake, but that’s not the case, she said.

“Sam and I talked for many months about what we felt we might want to do. We wanted to be responsible in our decision making,” she said. “I want people to be able to shift their thinking and be open to the possibility … I really feel like we could use Nordic’s innovation here. There’s so many possible opportunities.”

Related: Watch the latest meeting about the proposed Belfast fish farm