Proposed RAS fish farm may not be financially viable

By Jane Earley | Feb 15, 2020

Investors and supporters of large-scale salmon aquaculture plants like the one proposed for Belfast might want to take a step back to consider the Nature Conservancy report on sustainable investment in aquaculture and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s guidelines for sustainable aquaculture. Not all land-based plants are less polluting than sea-based facilities, and this one has some real issues.

First, Nordic Aquafarms’ plant is risky business. Nature Conservancy points out what is likely to work in land-based systems, and what is really risky business. It emphasizes that RAS (recirculating aquaculture systems) technology is relatively new, and while it is evolving fast, there are as yet no examples of industrial success at the scale at which plants will need to operate to be financially successful.

The report lists 16 examples of failed projects, and the reasons for each failure. It warns that operational and management expertise are critical, as are “modular systems allowing for phased project development and system redundancy in case of failure, technology validation via subscale demonstration projects, and proximity to major markets.” None of these characterize Nordic’s project. It concludes that at the scale at which Nordic intends to operate, “investors and analysts can only speculate on the ultimate viability.”

Second, many factors will make this plant unsustainable. While the TNC report notes that “harmful (terrestrial) impacts can be avoided by locating on previously developed sites and avoiding sensitive habitat,” Nordic is doing the opposite by locating in a sensitive coastal watershed, currently protected by both covenant and a conservation easement.

Nordic will affect the marine environment by spewing a whopping 7.7 million gallons every day of tepid, nitrogen-laced brine into Belfast Bay, adding to pressure on a Gulf of Maine that is already warming faster than any other U.S. marine environment, and likely to spawn algal blooms that will harm coastal Maine fisheries, other forms of aquaculture, and recreation.

Water and energy use are also massive. Nordic is planning to take about half of the capacity of the aquifer (using more than 1,600 gallons a minute) used by Belfast and Northport. But probable salt water incursion in the Nordic plant area will increase demand for water, and Nordic’s use may ultimately preclude other, more sustainable enterprises.

Nordic estimates that it will use 900,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually to run the generators for an enormous facility whose lights and heat must be on all the time. Combined with the truck traffic to supply fish food (including an unspecified amount of fish meal from relatively depleted wild fish populations), trucks running to major markets far down the coast, and disposal of massive amounts of fecal waste, this energy use amounts to significant carbon emissions.

Third, these factors will be carefully considered should Nordic attempt to obtain sustainability certification from the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, as it has done for its Norwegian facility and pledged to do here. Legal Sea Foods, Whole Foods/Amazon, all of the grocery and fine dining chains, even Walmart, all use sustainability certification to assure customers that they aren’t destroying the planet. Lower-value products are not safe either; you can’t sell cat food these days without a B2B sustainability certification. Without this certification (which includes public participation), Nordic’s product will not be acceptable in most of its target markets.

In conclusion, there are many reasons to doubt that the industrial development proposed by Nordic will ever be a success financially, technologically and environmentally, given its current business model and environmental footprint. I hope that investors, regulators and the public will take this into consideration.

Note: The Nature Conservance report is entitled “Towards a Blue Revolution: Catalyzing Private Investment in Sustainable Aquaculture Production Systems,” at tnc.org. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s Certification Scheme for Salmon Aquaculture can be found at asc-aqua.orghe.

Jane Earley lives in Belfast and Alexandria, Virginia. She is a former CEO of the Marine Stewardship Council and, as an international trade attorney, specialized in sustainable supply chains and certification systems. In Belfast, she is active in the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition, Pen Bay Stewards and Belfast Garden Club, and is currently on the board of the Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area.

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