The first rendering of the new fish farm to go on the former Verso paper site. Credit: Courtesy of Whole Oceans

BUCKSPORT, Maine — The company planning to build an Atlantic salmon farm at the former Verso Paper site announced on Tuesday plans to construct a fish processing facility across town that would employ 40 to 50 workers.

Speaking hours before the Bucksport Planning Board approved a local building permit for Whole Oceans’ proposed $180 million fish farm, CEO Jacob Bartlett said his company plans to process grown salmon for wholesale and retail sales at the Buckstown Heritage Industrial Park within four years — in addition to raising the fish at the former paper mill site.

Likely to cost $15 million to $20 million, the processing plant and the $180 million fish farm would make Bucksport the first town in the northeastern U.S. to grow and process Atlantic salmon entirely within land-based facilities. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the farm’s final permit. If approved, construction would begin within 30 days of the approval — likely in November, Whole Oceans has said.

The farm and processing plant would employ a total of 140 to 150 workers in Bucksport, a number that could grow to 250 with additional phases of the project. Whole Oceans’ investment in Bucksport could eventually reach $250 million, Bartlett said, although he did not provide a detailed explanation of how.

Whole Oceans is among a handful of U.S. and Canadian companies rushing to grow salmon through land-based systems. They see a market ripe for profits: The U.S. is the largest market for Atlantic salmon worldwide, yet it imports 98 percent of its supply.

The company, which says it already has customers for the fish it plans to produce, considered partnering with another processor of salmon and locating the facility across the street from the mill site, but opted for its own facility at the Buckstown site instead, Bartlett said.

Buckstown already has businesses that process lobster, mussels, crab, shrimp and clams, plus a cold storage facility that handles frozen seafood and blueberries. The 63-acre site off Route 3 and Route 46 has town water and sewer connections, and its land is free to businesses that meet town approval, according to the town’s website.

“At the end of the day, we wanted to be in control of our own destiny as far as yields go and quality goes,” Bartlett said. “With the industry that’s already out there [at the industrial park] in the same sector, seafood processing, we can take advantage of the trucking routes and different vendors [already in use] in the area.”

“And you’ll start to see that the producers are starting to own their own processing,” he added.

If all goes well, the company would apply for a permit to build the processing facility on three or four acres at Buckstown by the middle or the end of 2021, Bartlett said.

Construction of the farm is expected to finish in 2022, with the first cohort of fish grown to full size, 10 to 12 pounds, and sold in 2024, the company has said.

The company has separately applied to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for a site location and development permit for the farm. It needs both permits before it can begin construction. Its application with the state is pending, Bartlett said.

The company purchased more than 100 acres at the former mill site, which closed in late 2014, from site owner AIM Development in May. The application for its Bucksport building permit calls for earth work on 22 acres of the site to start in November. That work, estimated to cost about $6.5 million, would include demolishing paper mill foundations, piping and storage tanks to make way for the company’s proposed Freshwater Building.

Construction on that 90,000-square-foot building would begin in April 2020, according to the permit application, and finish six months later in October 2020. The Freshwater Building is where Whole Oceans plans to hatch salmon eggs and raise the young fish to 10 months of age. The building will also house offices.

Besides construction of the building, this phase of the project would include the installation of the building’s underground utilities, and aquaculture and water treatment systems, along with improvements to its north and south roads. Including the building’s square footage, this phase will redevelop a total of 340,000 square feet of the mill site, according to the application.

Construction of a second unit, called the South Grow-out Building, is scheduled to take 12 months starting in October 2020. It will house large recirculating aquaculture systems and supporting infrastructure to raise the salmon to a size suitable for sale. Recirculating aquaculture systems flush seawater through large fish tanks. Space for fish feed will also be located in this 350,000-square-foot building.

If Whole Oceans’ operation in Bucksport is successful and expands, the company will build the North Grow-out Building, possibly in 2025 or 2026. At 350,000 square feet, it will mirror the South building, according to the application.

Personnel from Kuterra, a company on Canada’s west coast that Whole Oceans’ parent company is attempting to acquire, will help Whole Oceans with the installation and operation of aquaculture equipment on the Bucksport site, according to the permit application.

Kuterra runs one of the world’s first land-based salmon farms and is partnering with Whole Oceans, although the latter’s attempt to buy majority control of Kuterra is pending and will likely be resolved in two or three weeks, Bartlett said.

Bucksport workers, who will get at least $15 to $18 per hour for starting pay, will be taken to Kuterra for training in the months leading up to the farm going online, Bartlett said.

Kuterra’s latest cohort of fish will be ready for processing on Friday, he said.

Watch: Why so many fish farms are slated to open in Maine

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