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Lessons from Maine

Q&A with Erik Heim, president, Nordic Aquafarms


A digital rendering of Nordic Aquafarms’ planned RAS facility in Belfast, Maine

All eyes are on the U.S. State of Maine as it becomes an emerging destination for RAS development projects.

Because of its geographical access to both fresh and sea water, Maine has established a strong heritage industry in fishing. Its seafood products are globally recognized and the government is looking to RAS as an opportunity to expand the industry, create jobs and grow the state’s economy.

Norwegian seafood producer, Nordic Aquafarms, is one of the first companies to announce a major RAS build in the state. The company is investing about US$500 million to establish an Atlantic salmon RAS farm in Belfast, Maine.

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But even with strong support from the government, the company faces staunch opposition from local and state environmentalists who fear a harmful impact caused by the volume of water required to produce 33,000 metric tonnes of fish annually.

In the first episode of the RAS Talk podcast, RAStech editor Mari-Len De Guzman was joined by Brian Vinci, director of The Conservation Fund Freshwater Institute, to investigate the challenges and lessons learned from Nordic Aquafarms’ RAS project.

Below is a snippet of their conversation with president Erik Heim about how the company is navigating through the issues and process of being a pioneer of this emerging RAS movement. The full 33-minute conversation can be found online at rastechmagazine.com/podcast.

RAS Talk: You’re the first mover to invest in Maine for your land-based farm in the U.S. Why is it that you chose this state over others in the United States?

Erik Heim: We spent a lot of time looking at the access to clean coldwater resources, both fresh and sea water. Another thing that Maine has going for it is a strong seafood heritage and a brand. It has a very nice brand position for seafood that companies can build on. Property access is good in Maine, although it’s not necessarily always easy to find appropriate or large enough properties near the ocean due to other types of development.

And what we discovered as we started exploring is really a strong political support for this kind of development on the local and state level. Regulatory processes is a really important piece of making these things work, and the addition of academic institutions in marine sciences in the state, which is an asset for anybody looking to come here.

So that’s really how we ended up on the final site, after walking probably 20 sites that we assessed to be technically strong. And it’s also a very nice community for staff to bring their families.

A digital rendering of Nordic Aquafarms’ planned RAS facility in Belfast, Maine

RAS Talk: Nordic Aquafarms has faced challenges on the public-facing side of this whole endeavour. What is the company’s strategy for winning public support and maybe even correcting a lot of misinformation that’s out there?

Heim: So, typically, what we do is we stage public meetings, we do newsletters, we always have an open-door policy in our offices where people come in and, like with many of our other projects, we have a community liaison working on all of these.

Many times, it’s very difficult to predict how those (social) dynamics play out. It’s very important to be sensitive to local issues and work through them. Sometimes these differences can be ideological and that’s when it becomes more challenging because (then) the facts don’t necessarily matter.

Probably some of that we’ve seen in Maine, that nobody really in the State had predicted would emerge, but it did emerge for a number of reasons, ranging from opinions about how the authorities did re-zoning for the property and other issues.

I don’t know, in the end, what we could have done differently at this location, but the pre-emptive element of stakeholder work is extremely important. Also, being resilient in working your way through these things. That’s something that every project should have on their radar.

RAS Talk: Even with these opposing voices, there are many in the community that seem to support the project. Are you able to take advantage of these relationships?

Heim: We have a very good collaboration with scientific and environmental organizations in Maine, both the University of New England and the University of Maine. We work well with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Conservation Law Foundation and we also have a good history with the Salmon Federation up here. So there’s a lot of enthusiasm and support for this in many places.

We also have a local NGO that was formed in support of aquaculture and facts. If you look at the community we’re in, it’s also a lot of families that are looking for a future where their kids will find good-paying jobs along the coastline of Maine.

RAS Talk: You mentioned how having experienced staff is critical from very early into the process and you have many very experienced aquaculturists on your team. How difficult is it to find and scale experienced staffing for Nordic Aqua?

Heim: I think the key strategy for companies in this segment is to successfully attract a core of experienced people and scale from that. And so far, I think we’ve done a decent job and we have more ahead of us.

What I generally find in the U.S. is very keen interest from institutions to have conversations about what kind of people we need to educate in the future. What we’ve been emphasizing a lot is integration of practical experience in the programs, so that they educate people who have a practical understanding when they become candidates for hire.

(Editor’s note: Since this interview, Nordic Aquafarms has reached some new milestones in its journey to build its RAS farm in Maine. Following are excerpts from a recent statement from the company.)

After extensive and thorough permit application processes Nordic Aquafarms reached some important milestones last week.

  • Findings of facts from Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands were issued on June 10, and Nordic is looking forward to the Submerged Land´s Lease being issued.
  • First Draft order (Minor Air Emissions Permit) from Maine Department of Environmental Protection was issued on Friday July 17, 2020, which will be followed by a 30-day public comment period.
  • On July 15, the City of Belfast Planning Board voted 5-0 that the Preliminary Site Plan, including supplemental information submitted by Nordic Aquafarms, satisfies the criteria identified in Section 90-42, moving closer to a final decision on permit applications.
  • Waldo County Superior Court dismissed the opposition´s latest attempt at derailing the project by claiming that that the DEP Board lacked subject matter jurisdiction to review Nordic´s permit application due to lack of TRI by referring to a recent court ruling. (Tomasino v. Town of Casco)

Nordic Aquafarms is very pleased to be approaching the final stages of the permitting processes with the first DEP draft order issued this week. “We are very appreciative for the DEP´s careful and deliberate review and the progress they have been able to make despite the COVID-19 situation. We also commend the City Planning Board for its careful review of the application and the vote to move forward to a final decision on the permits,” says Erik Heim, president of Nordic Aquafarms Inc.

“When I founded the company, we chose Maine very deliberately because of our shared vision of environmental sustainability. After thorough scrutiny, we are pleased that our standards for ourselves meet and exceed the high expectations of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.” he added,