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

A British firm that announced plans nearly three years ago to build a land-based salmon farm on the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill site in Millinocket has delayed its plans, saying that other salmon farm operators have “poisoned the well” for the technology.

Aquabanq, a Wyoming-based subsidiary of London-based Aquabanq Management and Holding, said in 2019 that it planned to open its Millinocket operation in either 2021 or 2022, and harvest up to 10,000 tons of salmon a year by 2025.

At the time, it joined a handful of companies that planned land-based aquaculture operations in Maine, including in Belfast, Bucksport and Jonesport. While companies behind other proposed operations have moved forward with securing permits, they all have yet to break ground on their proposed projects.

Salmon isn’t off the table for Aquabanq, but the company is now also looking to farm shrimp in Millinocket, CEO A.J. Shapiro said. IntraFish, a commercial fishing trade publication, first reported on Aquabanq’s delay in August.

“Maine remains on the map for 2023 or 2024,” Shapiro said. In the meantime, however, the company plans to turn its attention to shrimp farming in the meantime, citing “less red tape” and a faster harvest time compared with salmon.

An Aquabanq spokesperson said the company’s shrimp operation would use a “zero discharge” technology, meaning it wouldn’t release water or other liquids into the environment. As a result, the operation would not require a pollutant discharge permit.

Wild shrimp have been off limits to Maine fishermen for seven years, with regulators in December extending the moratorium in the Gulf of Maine for another three years.

Sean DeWitt, the president of the nonprofit Our Katahdin, which owns the Millinocket mill site, said he was unable to comment on the current nature of the group’s relationship with Aquabanq, citing a nondisclosure agreement that applied to inactive projects.

However, DeWitt said, his group is actively seeking aquaculture business tenants. The group has already signed a lease with a California company that plans to bring a $300 million data center to the property.

“Aquaculture remains a core priority for us because the site is so well suited for it, given the affordable renewable power, freshwater resources and abundant land,” DeWitt said.

Shapiro blamed “investor skittishness” toward salmon farming for the decision to postpone Aquabanq’s Millinocket plans.

“Norwegian land-based salmon operators have poisoned the well very efficiently,” he said.

Atlantic Sapphire, a Norwegian-founded company, lost 1.1 million salmon at its Miami farm last March due to what the company called “design weakness” with its recirculating aquaculture system supplier. The company previously lost 200,000 salmon at the same facility in July 2020.

Another Norwegian company, Nordic Aquafarms, is attempting to begin building one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms in Belfast, but its proposal has run into staunch opposition, with its ability to place intake and outfall pipes running into Penobscot Bay challenged in court.

Shapiro did not name any companies in his statement.

“Now everybody thinks that the salmon RAS technology is not ready for prime time,” Shapiro said. “It is, of course, sheer nonsense, but it is what it is and the market may need some time to ‘cool off.’”

Maine Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner David Madore said Aquabanq did not have any permit applications on file with the state agency.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.