Nordic Aquafarms purchased property near the Little River from the Belfast Water District in March. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — A Mainer will take the helm of Nordic Aquafarms, at least for the time being, after longtime company leaders Erik Heim and Marianne Naess last week announced they were leaving the Norwegian-owned enterprise.

Brenda Chandler of Auburn, who has served as Nordic’s chief financial officer for the past three and a half years, has been appointed interim chief executive officer. The Maine native, who has family roots in Belfast and Jonesport, will split her time between the Nordic corporate office in Portland and Humboldt, California.

Brenda Chandler, who has served as Nordic Aquafarms’ chief financial officer since 2019, has been appointed interim chief executive officer of the company after longtime leaders Erik Heim and Marianne Naess stepped down last week. Credit: Courtesy of Nordic Aquafarms

The company is working toward building land-based salmon farms in Belfast and in Samoa, California. The Belfast farm, which has received all its state, local and federal permits, is in the design stage now, the company said in a press release issued Tuesday afternoon.

If built as permitted, the $500 million fish farm would be one of the largest in the world.

Heim, who founded Nordic eight years ago, is a pioneer of the recirculating aquaculture system industry. The dual American-Norwegian citizen and Naess, who are married, moved from Norway to Maine to head up the American operations. They have served as the public face for the controversial land-based salmon farm project in Belfast since announcing plans for it in January 2018. Over the weekend, Heim wrote on LinkedIn that he and Naess have ended their time with Nordic. It was not immediately clear why the two were leaving.

“I am confident that we are only in early beginnings as far as the potential for aquaculture in the US. But there are also challenges to address and much work left to make that a reality. Therefore, my commitment to furthering food security and industry enablement in the US will continue,” Heim said. “Summer vacation is now on the menu after four years of hard work in the US. After that, it is time for new challenges.”

Bernt Olav Rottingsnes, the Norway-based chief executive officer and chairman of the board for parent company Nordic Aquafarms Group AS, told Undercurrent News that the company is moving forward with its American projects. Nordic also has operations in Norway and Denmark.

“Nordic Aquafarms aims to be a leading player in sustainable land-based aquaculture, and we are fully committed to the two projects in the U.S.,” Rottingsnes said. “Any change in US leadership will not change our commitment.”

Opponents of the Belfast fish farm also remain committed to trying to keep the project from being built. Sid Block, the president of Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area, said over the weekend that his group isn’t “celebrating yet.”

Marianne Naess and Erik Heim announced last week that they were leaving Nordic Aquafarms. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“I am not at all reassured by the departure of Eric Heim and Marianne Naess from Nordic Aquafarms and their plans to build a huge land-based fish production facility that would be an environmental and economic disaster for midcoast Maine,” Block said. “[The] plant would undermine Maine’s commitment to reduce its carbon footprint and mitigate the effects of climate change. I will only be reassured when this foreign investment firm ceases all its activities in Maine.”

The project has local support, too. Anne Saggese of The Fish Are Okay said that while she was sorry to hear that Heim and Naess are moving on, she believes they did good work in Belfast.

“Their expertise is in creating new projects and they’ve already accomplished that here,” she said, adding that the local team they put together, including Chandler, is still in place. “All the skills we need for Belfast are still here, and I look forward to the groundbreaking.”