In this Oct. 12, 2008, file photo, farm-raised Atlantic salmon move across a conveyor belt as they are brought aboard a harvesting boat near Eastport, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

BELFAST, Maine — Three companies announced intentions or advanced plans for land-based fish operations along the state’s jagged coastline in 2019.

Many in the state have embraced the aquaculture industry as a source for jobs and new tax revenue, but that has not been the case everywhere. In Belfast, opponents have continued their campaign to thwart a land-based fish farm there, citing deep concerns about the environmental and other long-term effects of the industry.

Just a few years ago, Mainers may not have heard much about land-based fish farming and recirculating aquaculture systems. But as America’s appetite for seafood has grown, the state has stepped up to feed that hunger. According to a 2017 University of Maine economic impact report, aquaculture is now among the fastest-growing food-production sector in the world. In Maine, the economic impact of the industry nearly tripled between 2007 and 2017, from $50 million to $137 million.

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

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“The American market for seafood is one of the largest markets in the world. And Maine as a state has a very strong brand, known for very high quality seafood,” Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, told the BDN earlier this year. “Companies that want to produce close to their markets are looking to the United States and Maine is an obvious place.”

The Maine coast has long been home to salmon aquaculture operations, especially in Hancock and Washington counties where Canada-based Cooke Aquaculture cultivates fish corralled in pens that float at sea. A land-based fish farm was even proposed in Gouldsboro in 2012, but it has stalled, and its owners are now seeking a buyer.

Nordic Aquafarms, Belfast

Back in early 2018, Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms was the first land-based fishery to publicly announce plans for operations in Maine.

The project is pending approval from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection for several permits to allow the $500 million land-based fish farm to move forward, including permits that would govern wastewater discharge, site development and more. The facility plans to raise as much as 33,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year.

It has been a thorough vetting process, according to Nordic officials, who said that over the past six months many state engineers and scientists have been analyzing every aspect of the design and operations of the proposal. Next up will be public hearings in Belfast in February before the Board of Environmental Protection.

“The public will have an opportunity to listen, to speak and hopefully sort fact from fiction about Nordic’s ability to produce salmon with environmentally safe, sustainable methods,” a Nordic spokesperson wrote the BDN on Tuesday. “What has been gratifying is the [large] number of people in the community who have strongly advocated that Nordic deserves a fair shake and a fair outcome.”

Still, some opponents have continued to protest the project. Two legal challenges to the company’s plan to route the intake and outflow pipes across a section of tidal flats near the outlet of the Little River are winding their way through civil and federal court. Jeffrey Mabee and Judith Grace, who believe they are the true owners of the tidal flats, placed the property in conservation. This fall, the disputed land became formally known as the Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area. It’s named for the landowner Nordic opponents believe kept the intertidal zone for herself, and specified that it should not be developed, when she sold off another piece of her property in 1946.

“It has been a year for some optimism,” Andy Stevenson, secretary of the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area said. “I think we have seen that the process for considering the objections about the [fish farm] has by and large worked.”

Whole Oceans, Bucksport

Maine-based Whole Oceans, which aims to raise up to 20,000 metric tons of fish a year, received its final permit in late November to build a $180 million land-based salmon facility in Bucksport. The company closed on a deal earlier this year to buy a chunk of the former Verso Paper mill site, and the mill’s iconic smokestack was demolished in October to partly make way for the project. It’s expected to go online in 2022, begin selling fish two years later and employ as many as 75 people in its first phase, according to estimates from the company.

Credit: Bill Trotter

Kingfish Zeeland, Jonesport

Officials from Netherlands-based Kingfish Zeeland reportedly considered 22 sites on the East Coast before finally settling on Jonesport, a coastal town of about 1,300 in Washington County that has historically depended on fishing and lobstering.

The Dutch company is looking to raise yellowtail, a high-value fin fish often used to make sushi. In April 2018, Kingfish Zeeland opened a land-based, recirculating aquaculture system in Europe that produces approximately 500 metric tons or 1.1 million pounds of fish each year.

‘A huge seafood deficit’

Even with these announcements, experts have said that Maine’s aquaculture market is far from being oversaturated. In 2016, the United States imported 91 percent of its seafood, and although the country is the world’s third largest market for seafood, it only ranks 15th in terms of aquaculture production. In Maine, where aquaculture plays an important role in the overall economy and in food production, the entire combined footprint of all the marine aquaculture businesses here in June was only the size of the Portland International Jetport.

“We have a huge seafood deficit in the United States,” Deborah Bouchard, the director of the University of Maine Aquaculture Research Institute, told the BDN earlier this year. “Having these land-based facilities not only will decrease our deficit, but it will increase our food security. I actually think that this is good for Maine.”

Credit: Gabor Degre

But is Maine prepared?

Among other concerns, opponents have expressed their belief that the technology is too new, would use too much water and would be too polluting. Earlier this year, Linda Buckmaster, part of the Belfast opposition group Local Citizens for Smart Growth, specified some of her concerns about land-based aquaculture in general.

“Maine’s just unprepared,” she said. “This is a new technology. Unproven, really, except in small batches. And we have virtually no laws governing land-based aquaculture, which I think is kind of the appeal. It’s kind of the Wild West, in a way.”

Companies that want to build land-based fish farms here have to follow the laws designed to keep the state’s water clean and environment undamaged. Before they can construct any tanks or start to raise any fish, they must obtain federal, state and local permits that allow them to do so.

Bouchard said that overall, she thinks the state can handle even more land-based farms than have been proposed, though she acknowledged that every project might not work for every community.

“People are picking Maine because we have both land and water,” she said. “While the local community has to see if it will have an impact, it won’t have an impact on the overall state. We have a lot of water and a lot of land.”

BDN writer Bill Trotter contributed to this report.