Nordic Aquafarms Inc., a Norwegian aquaculture company, today announced plans to build a $150 million salmon farm in Belfast. The facility, according to the company, would be one of the largest land-based salmon farms in the world.

The 9:30 a.m. announcement at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center was attended by more than 100 people, including Gov. Paul LePage, state legislators from Waldo County, county commissioners and city officials.

At the unveiling, Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim said his company chose Belfast after a six-month search that started overseas in Japan and China, then took stock of Ireland and Spain before settling on the U.S., New England, Maine, and finally Belfast.

Heim credited Maine with a "pristine environment, cold water conditions, long history as a leader in the seafood industry and proximity to major consumer markets in the Northeast United States," which today are largely dependent upon imported products.

The new facility would be built on 40 acres abutting Little River. Nordic Aquafarms has signed purchase and sale agreements for a 26-acre parcel currently occupied by the Belfast Water District, which would relocate to accommodate the sale, along with 14 acres from an abutting private landowner.

Nordic Aquafarms is currently building the largest salmon farm in Europe. However, Heim said that facility would be dwarfed by the one planned for Belfast, which would be roughly five times the size.

"We're building the pilot in Norway, then we're taking it big in Maine," he said.

The farm would raise Atlantic salmon and produce 33,000 tons of seafood per year after several phases of construction.

In the land-based system, fish would be isolated from local fauna, which Heim said would remove the possibility of spreading diseases. The closed system would also reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals that might otherwise be needed to treat the fish for sea lice.

Construction is expected to start in 2019. The initial phase will involve a $150 million investment. When the facility is completed in the next two years, it will employ 60 people at high-skill jobs. Operations would begin in 2020.

Later phases would result in a full end-to-end operation — from hatcheries to fish processing — and will bring the total investment to between $450 million and $500 million with a total of 120 to 140 jobs that would be filled through a combination of national and international searches and local openings.

Heim did not offer an estimate of the size of the facility itself, other than to say it would be five times larger than one currently under construction in Norway, and would not fill the entire 40 acres.

The salmon would be distributed by truck and sold principally in the U.S., Heim said. He added that his company, in the spirit of environmental sustainability, is looking into buying a fleet of Tesla electric trucks.

Gov. LePage lauded the investment as a "big deal," noting that it dovetails with his administration's interest in expanding economic ties with Northern Europe.

City Manager Joe Slocum offered a preemptive response to those who have asked in the past about Belfast's success in attracting businesses.

"It's not that much of a secret," he said. "Belfast continues to grow because it decided a long time ago that it wanted to."

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