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

By setting its sights on building a land-based fish farm in Jonesport, a Dutch firm is hoping to be the first to cultivate yellowtail at a commercial scale in the United States.

Kingfish Zeeland, founded in 2015, has successfully cultivated yellowtail in Kats, Netherlands, in Europe, where in April 2018 it opened a land-based, recirculating aquaculture system that produces approximately 500 metric tons or 1.1 million pounds each year.

By building a similar facility in Jonesport that can produce 6,000 metric tons — or 13.2 million pounds — the company hopes to carve out a bigger share of the United States’ $1.24 billion aquaculture market. According to the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. ranks 16th worldwide for fish and shellfish production from aquaculture (China, with a $144 billion annual aquaculture industry, is by far the leader), but more than half of the seafood imported and consumed in the U.S. is cultivated rather than wild caught.

Ohad Maiman, the CEO of Kingfish Zeeland, told SeafoodSource in May that expanding production to the U.S. is “critical” if the company wants to sell more in the U.S. market, where currently it sells just 10 percent of what it produces.

“While on the macro, overall level, Europe is a larger seafood consumption market, it is quite a fragmented market by member states,” Maiman told the trade industry publication. “The relative consolidation of the U.S. market makes it attractive.”

Credit: Bill Trotter

On Tuesday, Kingfish Zeeland said that it had secured “strategic funding” to design and obtain permits both for a planned expansion in the Netherlands and for its proposed development in Jonesport. The company did not say how much funding it had secured from Europe-based Creadev Innovation and Rabobank Corporate Investments.

“The firm is now focusing on delivering expedited growth with the plan to exceed installed capacity of 20,000 metric tons (or 44 million pounds combined) in Europe and the U.S. within 5 years,” company officials said in a statement.

A spokeswoman for Kingfish Zeeland said Tuesday that additional information about the development funding or about the firm’s plans in Jonesport was unavailable.

Jonesport officials did not reply Tuesday to a voicemail message left at the town office.

For more than a decade, there have been research and development efforts in Maine aimed at establishing land-based aquaculture facilities. But it is only in the past two years — as large-scale recirculating aquaculture system techniques have become commercially viable — that development proposals have surfaced in the state, which has the advantages of large available oceanfront properties, clean water and proximity to heavily populated Northeast markets.

In addition to Kingfish Zeeland’s proposal in Jonesport, Nordic Aquafarms and Whole Oceans are planning to build large land-based salmon farms in Belfast and Bucksport, respectively.

Prior to deciding on Jonesport, Kingfish Zeeland had considered 22 sites along the East Coast. According to SeafoodSource, the final two locations under consideration were Jonesport and the Hancock County town of Gouldsboro.

Credit: Jan de Carpentier | Kingfish Zeeland

The species cultivated by Kingfish Zeeland, Seriola lalandi, often is identified as hamachi on sushi menus and has proven to be one of the most viable species, both commercially and biologically, for land-based aquaculture operations. Yellowtail already is farmed commercially in North America at an ocean site in Mexico off the Baja peninsula.

It is native to southern oceans and informally is known as yellowtail or amberjack. It is a separate species from other similarly named fish such as yellowtail snapper (Ocyurus chrysurus), yellowtail flounder (Limanda ferruginea), yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) and Japanese amberjack (Seriola quinqueradiata).

In Jonesport, with has a population of roughly 1,400 residents, Kingfish Zeeland envisions an initial investment of $110 million and at first employing 70 people, 60 of whom would not need prior specialized experience to work at the plant, Maiman has said.

Credit: Bill Trotter

A second phase would involve increasing production capacity and establishing a hatchery, and would be contingent on a successful ramp-up of its presence in the U.S. marketplace, Maiman has told SeafoodSource.

If all goes well, the Jonesport facility eventually could expand its annual production to 15,000 metric tons or 33 million pounds, Maiman has said.

Though a contractor has not yet been chosen for the project, the construction would most likely be done by Danish firm Billund Aquaculture, Seafood Source also has reported. That firm is also slated to build Whole Oceans’ Atlantic salmon farm in Bucksport.

The site in Jonesport that Kingfish Zeeland has chosen for development is a 94-acre oceanfront parcel overlooking Chandler Bay. It is located next to U.S. Coast Guard housing on Route 187, 3 miles east of the intersection of Main and Bridge streets in the central village.

The land currently is owned by W.W. Wood Properties LLC of Holden, according to Jonesport’s online municipal assessing records. There is minimal development on the site, which is accessible via Dun Garvan Road and has one building with an assessed value of $30,000. Overall, the assessed value of the property, including the land, is $752,000, which generates $12,144.80 in annual property tax revenue for the town.

Wayne Wright, owner of the Holden company, said Tuesday that the property is under contract to sell to Kingfish Zeeland, but he declined to disclose the pending sale price. He said he bought the parcel in 2017 as an investment property. Historically, it has been used for growing wild blueberries, he said, but the property has been sitting idle since he acquired it.

BDN writer Abigail Curtis contributed to this report.

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

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A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....