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Is Nordic Aquafarms Industrial Salmon Farm Good for Belfast?

Analysis of proposed $150-million salmon factory farm in Belfast, Maine

Scale of the project:  The land-based industrial fish farm being planned by Nordic Aqua Farms (NAF) would be one of the largest in the world, raising between 25,000 and 30,000 tons of salmon a year at full production. Many questions about the operation of such a facility can only be answered in theoretical models. A land-based industrial salmon farm of this magnitude has not been built and is not in operation at this point in time. 

Siting and Zoning of the project: The NAF Industrial Salmon Farm would be located on 40 acres of wooded recreational and wildlife habitat in Belfast, adjacent to the Little River reservoirs and trail. The zoning allows 50’ tall building and/or paving over on up to 28 acres of the property, with just a 40 foot vegetated buffer strip from neighboring residential properties. It also allows for deep ground water wells to be drilled. Although the City will retain and preserve a 250’ wide shore land strip along the trail, it can grant rights to NAF to dig additional wells and make other changes within this strip.

Water Usage: NAF requires wells to be able to sustainably produce up to 1,200 gallons/minute. This translates into more than 1.7 million gallons of water/day, or more than 630 million gallons of water annually. This water will be drawn out of the Little River watershed, a 16.7 sq. mile watershed that stretches from the North side of Rt. 3 in Belfast westward into Belmont and southward into Northport. In addition, the Belfast Water District has agreed to sell NAF up to 262 million gallons of water annually. What will be the impact of this industry on our community water resources, both from the City and the aquifer? This total volume of water is nearly as much as is being drawn by Nestle out of four Maine  locations! Will it affect neighboring wells and wetlands, or our reservoirs?

Fish Food: NAF intends to develop a Maine sourced salmon feed containing vegetable protein, fish oil and fish meal, and insect protein and algae. This type of fish feed is as yet undeveloped but will reportedly contain no GMOs or medications, but may still contain pesticide residues, heavy metals, and other contaminants. In addition, there are new techniques for gene modification, called “crisping”, that avoid GMO labeling at this point in time. Because salmon are carnivorous, the fish oil and meal are essential, and about 20% of the feed mix will be sourced from existing small species fisheries. How many tons of little fish will be required to produce feed to grow 25-30,000 tons a year? What will be the effect on our fisheries and the larger wild fish in the Bay?

Discharge: Salmon require a constant flow and renewal of the water in the tanks, which will be up to 50% sea water. NAF plans to both draw water in and discharge water one mile out into the Bay, where the ocean depth is just 50 feet. Contrary to NAF’s predictions, the currents flow in complex circular paths around the islands, rather than flushing nearly 20 miles downstream into the open ocean. Despite extensive filtering systems that capture approximately 99% of the solids from the water before it is discharged, daily discharges will total approximately 1,600 pounds of nitrogen, 6-8 pounds of phosphorous, and 380 pounds of suspended solids. Warmer brackish water rise to the surface and increase the risk of algae blooms. How will this affect local mussel and kelp farms? How will other fisheries, such as lobster, be affected? 

Disposal of Waste: NAF has stated their plans for processing the waste captured at the filters by dewatering it and reducing it to a powder that can be used in fertilizers or biogas operations. These products and the markets for them are not yet identified, no answers have been available for how this can be possible if the waste has a high salt content. A large RAS facility run by the University of ME in Franklin has its waste picked up by a septic hauler and removed to an unspecified location. Are we recreating the days of huge piles of chicken manure with no locations for disposal?

Energy Use and Carbon Footprint: NAF plans on covering the rooftops of their buildings with solar panels and estimates that 6-10% of their power will be produced by these.., and additional energy savings will be achieved with other technologies. They also refer to the savings in CO2 emissions by growing fish locally rather than shipping them by air from Europe or South America. However, the energy use of these operations is undeniably huge, and in a 2015 report from the International Salmon Farming Association, the carbon footprint from RAS grown fish was estimated at 263 pounds per pound of fish.

The Bottom Line: The Nordic Aquafarm Salmon Farm will be a massive industrial factory fish farm, and qualifies as a “CAFO”, a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. It will have the same types of environmental impacts effects as a Southern factory pig farm, a sprawling midwest beef feedlot, or a large 1980s Waldo County broiler farm.

Is Nordic Aquafarms the Problem, or a Symptom of the Problem?

Over the last 30 years, Belfast has experienced dramatic and rapid growth and prosperity. Through a combination of hard work and serendipitous luck, it now boasts a thriving downtown and surrounding areas, multiple thriving industries and small businesses, busy community centers, good health care, and a noteworthy tourism reputation.

With our growth has come an influx of retired and semi-retired people and a return of some young families, all looking for quality of life in a safe and beautiful community. We have seen a busy climb in property sales and values, and a plentitude of business for area tradespeople, services, retailers, and hospitality.

With growth comes a climb in valuations, accompanied by a steep rise in taxes, accompanied by a decrease in state subsidies for education and infrastructure. At the same time, there has been an eight-year drought in state support for education and other social services that are so critical for healthy communities.

As our community demographic has changed, property values have grown out of reach for many families, and taxes have become unsustainable for many others. We are experiencing not a shortage of jobs, but rather a shortage of lower wage workers, for our restaurants, retail businesses, and manufacturing jobs. Although the jobs are here, we have no affordable housing for lower wage workers to move into.

Like so many other communities in Maine, we are all struggling to make smart and sustainable decisions under heavy pressure. But there are no quick fixes or magic solutions. Rather, it is a time to come together to remember and rearticulate our values, to preserve the natural beauty and entrepreneurial authenticity of Belfast, to be accountable to every citizen’s well-being, and to work on long-range solutions for a truly sustainable future.

As a community, can we take a step back and remember the lessons we have learned from the past, give thanks for the prosperity and vibrancy we are experiencing in the present, and reflect on our common vision for the future of Belfast?

Source: Local Citizens for SMART Growth

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