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Struggling Mill Town Hopes for Aquaculture-Fueled Recovery

A welcome sign in Bucksport, Maine stands in front of the former Verso paper mill, now demolished.

A welcome sign in Bucksport, Maine stands in front of the former Verso paper mill, now demolished. Timothy B. Clark

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

America’s increasing appetite for salmon could give Bucksport, Maine a much-needed economic boost.

In a tale of remarkable resiliency, a suffering old mill town on the banks of the Penobscot River in Maine has engineered a feat of renewal and an important role in a new but fast-growing business of raising salmon for consumption in the hungry American market.

Whole Oceans LLC, a Portland-based firm, recently announced it will build a huge land-based aquaculture plant in Bucksport on land now occupied by remnants of the Verso paper mill that once was at the center of the region’s economy. The company said it will invest $250 million in the plant, providing employment to dozens, and later hundreds, of workers in the town of 5,000 residents.

It’s exciting news both for its economic impact, and because it will help put Maine at the center of a brand new, still-developing technology holding the prospect of greatly reducing demand for imports to feed the U.S. market. Another indoor salmon-raising plant is being developed by a Norwegian company in Belfast, just 20 miles down the Penobscot River.

Route Fifty last visited Bucksport in spring 2016. Then, the town was reeling from the Verso mill’s shuttering in October 2014 and figuring out how to move on from the devastating closure.

The Whole Oceans story revolves around a Maine boy who brought expertise gained in global finance and investment banking at Nomura Securities back to benefit his home state. The first sentence in the company’s Feb. 21 announcement of the Bucksport investment makes that point: “When Whole Oceans’ CEO Rob Piasio was growing up in Yarmouth, Maine, he knew that one day, he would help his state grow and prosper.” Six years of research and preparation preceded the launch of Whole Oceans, according to the announcement. It quoted Piasio: “This story is also about the resiliency and determination of towns throughout Maine that make projects like this possible.”

Meeting Demand

Americans now consume about 500,000 tons of salmon a year. Nearly 95 percent is imported from offshore fish farms in three countries: Norway, Chile and Canada. Small fish farming operations also are found in Maine’s offshore waters. But offshore operations require the use of chemicals to combat sea lice and disease that can afflict the fish. Fish are given a chemical bath before getting on their way to consumers. Pens get so dirty that they must be retired from use for more than a year while tides slowly flush them clean.

In the Whole Oceans facility, and in Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed plant in Belfast, these problems will not exist because of the closed, recirculating characteristics of the technology. Piasio hopes Whole Oceans will capture 10 percent of the U.S. market. That will take years and a lot of investment to accomplish, but with their current plans, the Bucksport and Belfast operations could produce a combined output of about 53,000 tons of fish per year, or about 10 percent of current national demand. Whole Oceans says it has pre-sold 100 percent of projected production for the next 10 years.

These two plants have met an enthusiastic reception from leading government officials, including Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, who said that “aquaculture is a centerpiece of our state’s ocean economy.”  Gov. Paul LePage has said Whole Oceans “and its Maine-grown team will be an important addition to our state’s economy and transformative for Bucksport.”

Federal, state and local regulatory approvals will be needed for the two aquaculture projects. In response to a query about the Bucksport initiative, Doug Ray, director of legislative affairs and communications for Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development, said in an e-mail that while “we are still quite early in the regulatory process,” a number of processes are underway.

What's envisioned for the Whole Oceans fish-farming facility in Bucksport, Maine. (Rendering courtesy Whole Oceans)

In December, he wrote that “the Maine Department of Environment Protection hosted a joint meeting with representatives of Whole Oceans, Department of Marine Resources, Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Whole Oceans provided the agencies with an overview of their planned operations and discussed the various agencies’ permitting requirements.  

“Several agencies within the executive branch, including our team here at DECD, will continue our involvement with this project as it moves forward and work with Whole Oceans throughout the entire process of permitting, and ultimately hiring.”

Before submitting permit applications, Whole Oceans will host a public information meeting in the Bucksport area—scheduled for March 20, according to Richard Rotella, Bucksport’s Community and Economic Development Director.

Whole Oceans has not “at this point asked for any financial aid from the town,” Rotella said. At the state level, Ray said the company would be eligible to apply for Maine’s Pine Tree Development Zone (PTDZ) program, which offers aquaculture and other categories of businesses “the chance to greatly reduce, or virtually eliminate, state taxes for up to ten years when they create new, quality jobs.”

Bucksport, Maine (Photo by Timothy B. Clark / Route Fifty)

Bucksport’s Win

Community spirit, hard work on a resilient future, and the blessings of geography doubtless contributed to Bucksport’s success in securing the Whole Oceans project. And perhaps, in some intangible way, the town’s poet laureate, Patricia Ranzoni, played a significant role

Not every town has an officially designated poet laureate, let alone one who would take on the big task of documenting hard lives lived over nearly a century of paper-making. The fruits of that effort are found in Still Mill; Poems, Stories & Songs of Making Paper in Bucksport Maine, 1930-2014, a 432-page book published in 2017. Drawing on writings by mill workers, their wives and others, obituaries and other sources, Ranzoni’s anthology hauntingly relates the hardships, and the satisfactions, of bread-winners and their community centered around the huge paper mill. Ranzoni’s own writings are well represented, including poems published earlier in the online journal e*lix*ir.

For a company considering locating in Bucksport, Still Mill provides powerful testimony to the strengths of the people who have lived and worked there for generations. But, of course, many practicalities also needed assessment by Piasio and his team.

In a recent interview, Rotella cited some of the factors that made Bucksport attractive to Whole Oceans. The site itself was one—a tract large enough to build the facility and adjacent to the river that would supply some of its water. The company has bought 120 acres of the 270-acre mill site from its current owner, the scrap metal firm AIM Development. The salmon-raising facility requires some salt water, and tests proved that the Penobscot River is sufficiently brackish in Bucksport. Huge amounts of freshwater are also required, and it proved that Silver Lake, which supplied Verso, has more than enough for the Whole Oceans project. And power can be bought from the big adjacent generating plant that once served the paper mill. Rotella also cited the town’s industrial park as a strength, providing easy siting for ancillary businesses to supply the Whole Oceans operation.

Concerns in Belfast

The Bucksport project seems all but a done deal, and Whole Oceans hopes to begin construction in August. Sales of the first salmon are still a few years away, since after the plant is completed, it will take about two years to mature the fish to a weight of about eight pounds. The Belfast plant is on a slightly slower schedule.

Of course, any project of this size can create community concerns, and these were on full display in Belfast on Feb. 21, when the town sponsored  an informational session about Nordic Aquafarms’ plan. About 300 people packed the meeting, which was filmed and archived on the town’s website.

Belfast residents expressed concern about the effects the project could have on their water supply and on the environment of their community next to Penobscot bay.

Belfast has no lake to rely upon, but rather takes its water from underground aquifers. Erik Heim, president and CEO of Nordic Aquafarms, told the crowd that his biggest challenge was “finding a sustainable amount of groundwater so as not to impact the community in a negative way.” By sustainable, he said he meant that “what I pump today”—estimated at 262 million gallons a year—is not going to diminish what can be pumped 30 years hence. A town spokesman said the water system has the capacity to supply the plant, adding that the company “will pay a lot of revenue in the next six years.”

Heim addressed questions about the feed his operation will supply to the young salmon, and said he was aiming to have it be “organic” and that in any event it would be easy to remove from the plant’s closed systems “so it won’t be discharged.” Feed-producing operations will require added investment and create more jobs.

Traffic and noise were a concern. But officials said the plant’s 60 employees wouldn’t create any traffic jams, nor would the 10-12 trucks coming and going from the plant each day. The trucks, incidentally, will likely be sourced from Tesla, Heim said, and their electric motors should be much quieter than most.

What about the guts? One resident said he estimated that gutting the fish before shipping them would require three 16-yard dump trucks a week to haul the stuff away. But Heim had a ready answer from his experience in Europe: viewing the guts as a resource, European plants block-freeze them for use in animal feed, fish oil and other applications. The guts, he said, “are not waste, but a valuable resource.”

The two Maine-based onshore salmon-growing operations will supply the regional market, in New England and perhaps a bit further south. Heim made the point that proximity to the consumer is important, and other facilities are springing up in other coastal states in the south and west. What’s planned as the biggest plant in the nation is under construction some 34 miles west of Miami by Atlantic Sapphire USA, a subsidiary of Norwegian farmed salmon firm Atlantic Sapphire A/S. It is on track to deliver an initial harvest by mid-2020, Johan Andreassen, the founder and CEO, assured a small group of investors during a tour in late January, according to Undercurrent News.

Fifteen hundred miles to the north, Bucksport is paying little attention to Florida, rejoicing as it is in the good fortune that has brought Whole Oceans its way.

Timothy B. Clark is Editor-at-Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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