Recent discussion about the land-based salmon farm proposed by Nordic Aquafarms included a June 12 panel discussion, a radio appearance by two city councilors defending the salmon farm, which has been controversial among some residents, and an estimate from city officials of the tax benefit that would come from an investment that could range from $150 million to $500 million.

The panel discussion at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center started with a soothing video about land-based aquaculture and ended with a resident shouting at a panelist about what goes into fish food. Much of the intervening 90 minutes was consumed with talk about permitting for the new business, the potential for pollution and disease, job prospects, "storied seafood," and "chickens that swim."

Nordic Aquafarms went public in January with plans to build a large, land-based aquaculture facility in Belfast to raise Atlantic salmon for regional markets in the Northeast United States. Initially, Nordic Aquafarms proposes to invest $150 million to build a facility capable of producing 13,000 tons of salmon per year.

Construction is expected to start in 2019, with operations beginning in 2020. Subsequent phases could bring the total investment to $450 million to $500 million.

Since the announcement in January, the company has been test drilling for water and doing other due diligence at the facility's proposed location, 40 acres next to Little River, currently owned by Belfast Water District and one private landowner.

At the panel discussion, attended by about 125 people, Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Cooperative, talked about the rise of "storied seafood," the enjoyment of which depends somewhat on answering the questions "Where did it come from? Who harvested it? Who made it?"

"L.L. Bean uses it," he said. "Almost every business uses it. Consumers love it."

Panel member Anne Hayden, program manager in the Sustainable Economies Program at the Brunswick, Mass.-based nonprofit Manomet, said the trend toward land-based aquaculture has broken down the boundary between fishing and agriculture — another panelist would later describe the proposed Nordic Aquafarms facility as "essentially a chicken farm, with chickens that swim."

Where offshore salmon farms were once maligned for tarnishing the views from waterfront homes, Hayden said, land-based facilities have drawn criticism from fishermen, who see the new businesses as privatizing the commons.

Sarah Cook, sales manager for Skretting, a global aquaculture feed manufacturer based in Tooele, Utah. addressed questions about the sources of proteins used to make aquafeeds for farmed fish. Fish meal, which was once a significant component of salmon feed, she said, now makes up about 5 percent. The source is trimmings from processing facilities and forage fish. This can be replaced with alternatives, including protein from insects and algae, for clients who want a different protein source, she said.

During a questions and answer session, Cook fielded more questions about feed. What was the impact of forage fishing in Vietnam, Peru and other countries where Skretting sources fish protein and how does her company know the governments in those places aren't corrupt? Does her company use poultry meal and pig blood for protein?

Some opponents of the salmon farm painted a bleak picture of the environmental effects of the facility. Jim Merkel of Belfast raised concerns about an outbreak of disease at the facility and described a "gyre of pollution" he believed would collect near Turtle Head in Islesboro, fueled by discharge from salmon farms in Belfast and Bucksport. Merkel also raised concerns about disease at the Belfast aquaculture facility.

Panelist Paul Anderson, executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, said he shares some of Merkel's questions but believes these will be addressed in the permitting process.

"The Army Corps of Engineers is going to get involved, and DEP is going to get involved," he said. "There's a whole parade of these impact assessments that have to be put together with credible data, and they have to run that gauntlet through various forms of government, and most of those will have public interface opportunities."

Anderson noted that it would be in Nordic Aquafarms' best interests to prevent disease and other problems.

"I had questions about, if they have an outbreak episode, how do they lock that down and keep that infestation, whatever it is, from ending up in the bay?" he said. "We're not going to answer that tonight, but believe me, the question is going to be asked."

Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim later addressed pollution, saying that the permitting authorities look at the "complete pressure" being put on the local ecosystem by discharge from the facility. Nordic Aquafarms has said that 99 percent of nutrients, including solids and phosphorus would be removed from wastewater before it goes into the bay.

Kieran Shell of Belfast asked how many high school-level jobs the new business would bring. Heim said the early hiring would focus on specialized staff, but workers of all levels of experience would be needed, particularly in later phases if the facility expands into processing. Moderator Des Fitzgerald, founder of the salmon processing company Ducktrap River of Maine, noted that the type of business proposed by Nordic Aquafarms would require trucking, packaging, plumbing, site work and other ancillary work.

"I just want to be really clear that you all didn't answer my question," Shell said.

David Noyes, a recent Nordic Aquafarms hire, jumped up to challenge the idea that education level determines a person's value in the job market.

"We're looking for intelligent driven people who like to work," Noyes said. "Maine is full of them. … If you're smart and hard-working, you can get a good job, and these are good jobs."

Speaking later, Shell said he would have been happy to hear that Nordic Aquafarms planned to pay $20 an hour starting wages and give ownership of a portion of the salmon farm to the community.

One attendee asked how Nordic Aquafarms would compensate for the loss of "the beauty of the natural life cycle of salmon."

Heim said land-based salmon farms see lower mortality rates than offshore pens, and possibly than in the wild, where smolts die in large numbers.

"It depends upon your perspective," he said.

Fitzgerald, the panel moderator, added that people often say aquaculture tanks look overcrowded, but the fish tend to stay close to each other, regardless of the depth of the tank.

"It's a schooling fish," he said. "That's what they are."

Joanne Moesswilde of Belfast asked Heim how much Nordic Aquafarms will donate to the restoration of wild salmon.

"Not will you? How much? Is what I want to know," she said, drawing applause from the audience.

Heim said he believes Nordic Aquafarms will help wild salmon restoration efforts by offering an alternative source for human consumption. He added that the company is interested in being involved with the local community.

"I'm taking the challenge," he said. "And I have to get back to you, because we're extremely busy right now. But when the time is right, we will get back to that issue. I promise you that."

Councilors respond on WBFY

City Councilors Eric Sanders and Mike Hurley appeared June 16 on Belfast Community Radio (WBFY 100.9 FM) to respond to common criticisms of the Nordic Aquafarms proposal and explain the city's role, including closed-door council meetings with company representatives before the January announcement.

"You could list any business that might want to come to Belfast today," Sanders told host Vic Treadwell on the Saturday afternoon show "Listen Up!"

"They all don't want people to know they're thinking about it until they've made the decision to think about it. And we were not the only city that was being looked at," Sanders said.

"You don't go out and tell everybody. … Because they have competitors. They don't want other people to know they're thinking about doing something like that."

Sanders noted that nobody knew about athenahealth before the company's formal announcement, which came after private meetings with city officials.

"We do it all the time," Hurley said about executive sessions. "it's not just for a business. We have property disputes. We have people who want to take over our rangeways. We have people cutting wood on city property. We have poverty abatements … We're not going to do that in public."

The councilors touched on improvements the Water District will be able to make from the sale of its Little River property to Nordic Aquafarms, and the real importance of attracting new property tax revenue.

"We deal with people every day who are losing their house because they can't pay their property taxes," Hurley said. "… We have people who think we should close the library so that we could cut taxes. We have a burden, a responsibility, to represent all the people of Belfast. Not just the opposition, but all of the people.

"The valuation is our motivation," he said.

How much could Belfast really save in taxes?

City Manager Joe Slocum and Assessor Brent Martin recently estimated that the added valuation from the Nordic Aquafarms development could drop the property tax rate by $1.37 per $1,000 of property value. The city officials estimated that the initial $150 million investment would "conservatively" result in $80 million of new property value, of which $50 million would be eligible for the state's Business Equipment Tax Exemption Program — on this portion the city would be reimbursed by the state for 56 percent of what the taxes would have been.

The new valuation would trigger a change in the state's education funding formula, which is based on local property values. This would result in Belfast paying a larger share of education costs, but would not nullify the gains altogether.

The city officials estimate that Belfast would get to keep 42.87 percent of new revenue on land and buildings, or $281,655, which could cut the mil rate by 1.37.

If Nordic Aquafarms completes later phases of the facility, the total investment of $450 million would net the city $3 million to $4 million per year, officials estimate.

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