Simulation of a Recirculating Aquaculture System from a Nordic Aquafarms video. | Created via GIPHY

There have been lots of ideas in recent years for how to maximize the economic potential of Humboldt Bay. “More cruise ships!” some suggested. “More oysters!” “Less-restrictive zoning!” “How about a new railroad or two?”

But as far as we can tell, no one even dreamed of suggesting that the Samoa peninsula could host one of the world’s largest indoor fish farms. No one imagined that Redwood Marine Terminal II, a contaminated brownfield site still littered with the rubble of an abandoned pulp mill, could be chosen to house a 600,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art aquaculture facility capable of supplying the West Coast with nearly 60 million tons pounds of fish per year.

That concept, and the Norwegian company that plans to bring it to fruition, found us.

Last Monday, with only a few days’ public notice, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, the government agency that took ownership of the marine terminal property in 2013, signed a lease with California Marine Investments, LLC, a subsidiary of a Norwegian company called Nordic Aquafarms.

The lease gives the company rights to 30 of the property’s 72 acres for the next three to five decades, as long as the project gets the required permits in the next three years. In exchange, the company will pay the Harbor District $20,000 per year during the initial three-year option period and then, once the full lease term kicks in, pay half a million dollars up front plus about $170,000 annually, climbing with the consumer price index. (Read more about the lease here.)

Behind the scenes, Nordic Aquafarms executives have been meeting with local officials since November, exploring the cost and supply of electricity and water, researching permits and infrastructure, etc. And they’d been searching the West Coast for an ideal project location for even longer.

But local residents are still trying to wrap their heads around the concept and its implications. Fishermen and environmentalists are wary of such a large-scale facility — and of the idea of farmed fish, generally. They worry that the factory could pollute our local waters, damaging an ecosystem that teems with life and provides hundreds of jobs. 

There’s also a lot of excitement, though. At the Harbor District’s lease-signing meeting, for example, Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass said the Norwegian company is set to make one of the largest outside investments the county has seen this century, a $400 million project that could bring 80 living-wage jobs and significant tax revenue to the region while potentially attracting other new businesses to create a whole new industry cluster. 

“This opportunity actually represents, to me, the rebirth of the peninsula,” Bass said.

Last week the Outpost sat down with Nordic Aquafarms President and Founder Erik Heim and Commercial Director Marianne Naess, his wife, to learn more about the company and their plans. We also heard from some skeptics and critics, including residents of Belfast, Maine, where Nordic Aquafarms plans to build a similar facility to supply seafood consumers on the East Coast.

Belfast, a harbor city of about 7,000 residents, has some striking similarities to Eureka, historically, ecologically and culturally. A blue collar community with factories along the bay, Belfast saw an influx of back-to-the-landers and organic farmers in the 1970s. And it stank, according to resident Ellie Daniels. 

While Eureka was long blanketed in the broccoli-fart stench of the pulp mills, Belfast reeked of poultry factories. 

“The harbor was just a mess of blood, feathers and chicken poop,” Daniels said. “It was just disgusting.”

In the late 1980s, as the timber industry was declining here in Humboldt, Maine’s poultry industry also collapsed as industrial chicken farming operations moved to the South. Like our pulp mills, the polluting and poison-riddled chicken factories (asbestos, in their case) were left vacant for years, and the city’s economy suffered.

Enter Nordic Aquafarms. The company has spent the past couple years laying the groundwork for a $500 million land-based recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) near Belfast’s Penobscot Bay. Construction is scheduled to begin this summer, with the first harvest of farmed Atlantic salmon planned for 2022. Production will ramp up in phases, Nordic says, eventually reaching 33,000 tons per year.

Here’s a video produced by Nordic Aquafarms that gives an overview of the project in Belfast:

Nordic Aquafarms Video from Belfast Community Media on Vimeo.

Daniels and her wife, who live on property right next to the project site, have formed a group called Local Citizens for Smart Growth, one of several community organizations opposing the factory. Their objections are partly about government process. (They’re suing the city for changing the property’s zoning from residential to commercial.) But they’re also concerned about the potential environmental impacts.

“I’m not anti-aquaculture,” Daniels said. “I just have big environmental concerns.”

Referring to Nordic’s plans as a CAFO (concentrated animal farming operation), Daniels said the factory would require logging “50 acres of pristine, mature forest.” Construction of a mile-long outfall pipe for plant’s discharge will churn up the sediment in Penobscot Bay, which is riddled with toxic mercury from the chicken farms, she said. 

Critics in Belfast also worry that the massive volume of water required for the fish farm will deplete local aquifers, and they say the plant’s discharge will include nitrogen, phosphorus and other chemicals that could impact local fisheries. (Lobster, as you might imagine, is big business in Belfast.)

“I do believe the technology is very state-of-the-art,” Daniels said. “But it’s never been tested at these large scales they’re talking about. … It’s all theoretical.”

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Before leaving town late last week, after numerous meetings with local stakeholders, Heim and Naess, Nordic’s representatives here in the U.S., said that’s not true: The company’s plans, and the technology underlying them, are well beyond the theoretical stage.

While large-scale RAS systems are an emerging technology, Nordic Aquaculture is the only company with such operations (in various stages of development) in three different countries, Heim said. There’s an established facility in Denmark producing yellowtail kingfish. (You can watch a promotional video about that operation here, if you like.) A salmon facility in Norway, double the size of the Denmark fish farm, has been built and is scheduled to start production later this month. So the U.S. facilities represent a logical progression, company representatives say.

We built them step upon step; they’ve become larger and larger; and performance has been improved and improved,” Heim said. The RAS fish farm design, as explained in this concept video, is modular, making it easy to reproduce.

“What we’ve done for the design that we’ve launched in the U.S. now is take it slightly up in scale, with additional performance improvements.  We’re just replicating the same thing … ,” Heim said. “Like Legos.”

“People call it an experiment; it’s not an experiment,” Naess agreed. “We have our own [in-house] engineering company. They have designed several dozen of these facilities all over the world.”

Heim and Naess said news media have blown criticism of the Belfast project out of proportion, and they noted that after reviewing permit applications and design proposals, some major environmental organizations wrote state representatives to recommend approving the project.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation, a group dedicated to protecting wild Atlantic salmon, wrote in a letter to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, “We believe Nordic Aquafarms, Inc. is proposing the most advanced technology available to reduce nutrients and the resulting discharge will have no negative impact on the coastal and marine environment.”

The Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy group, encouraged the state to establish a discharge sampling protocol near the outflow pipe to make sure the plant doesn’t mess with the levels of oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus in Penobscot Bay, but the group ultimately urged the state to approve the facility, noting Nordic Aquaculture’s successful track record in Europe.

The nonprofit Gulf of Maine Research Institute also recommended permit approval, concluding that “responsible aquaculture is the logical complement to our traditional fishing economy.”

In a presentation to a packed house at last week’s Harbor District meeting, Heim framed large-scale aquaculture as an environmentally sound way to meet the planet’s growing food needs.

“In the next 30 years demand for protein will double,” he said. “Where the heck are we going to get that without harming the environment?” He observed that 90 percent of the seafood consumed in this country is currently imported from as far away as Asia, South America and Scandinavia, creating a carbon footprint that’s “over twice what it would be if it were locally produced in a system like we’re talking about.”

Such a system, he said, is vastly superior to the kind of net-pen fish farm operations that have been criticized for environmental pollution. 

“Sea lice and parasites cannot get into these tanks because they’re filtered out, meaning we can eliminate medication,” he said. And since the farm is entirely indoors, “there’s no smell or noise, so we’re a good neighbor.” The contained facility also makes fish escapes implausible, he said.

Many of the areas of concern in Maine are non-issues here. Take the water supply, for example. John Friedenbach, general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, said his agency met with Heim and Naess.

“In our discussions, they’ve mentioned needing two-to-four million gallons of water per day,” he said. While that may sound like a lot, it’s a fraction of the agency’s capacity. “The District used to supply both pulp mills 65 million gallons a day, so we’re well within our capability,” Friedenbach said with a chuckle.

The Nordic folks were delighted. “Usually freshwater’s scarce, but here’s it’s like, ‘Is that all you need?’” Heim said.

Furthermore, unlike Maine, the Samoa peninsula has an industrial site that’s already zoned for aquaculture, with an outflow pipe that extends a mile-and-a-half into the ocean. The company has vowed not to use GMOs or antibiotics in its production, and Heim said the facility will have a filtration system that removes 99 percent of phosphorus and 85 percent of nitrogen — better filtration than you’ll find at any wastewater treatment facility on the West Coast.

Local officials may not have thought up the idea for such a project, but the Redwood Marine Terminal II site proved to be just what Nordic Aquafarms was looking for. Heim said the company researched potential West Coast locations from San Francisco north to the Canadian border, eventually narrowing it down to three spots. The other two were in Washington.

“The other players in the market said, ‘California’s off limits. You can’t do it. The power’s too expensive,’” Heim said. “We found a way to make it work, which is pretty cool.” The facility will need a continuous supply of electricity, and Heim said they plan to build solar facilities which they can tap into during peak hours. And they’ve been working with the Redwood Coast Energy Authority to explore renewable options.

“This venture seems very promising to us,” Friedenbach said. “Hats off to the Harbor District. I think they deserve a lot of credit.”

When the Harbor District acquired the former pulp mill property for a dollar in 2013, many criticized the agency, saying it was being irresponsible and exceeding its mandate. Millions of gallons of toxic pulping liquors had been left behind by the Freshwater Tissue Company, and after declaring an environmental emergency at the site, the EPA came in to help clean it up.

The site now hosts 18 commercial tenants, including Taylor Shellfish and Coast Seafoods. The Harbor District’s current director, Larry Oetker, said the agency is already leveraging Nordic’s proposal to pursue more cleanup funds. Last Wednesday the Harbor District applied for a Targeted Brownfield Assessment grant, and Oetker said he got a call back from EPA staff the next day letting him know the application had passed a preliminary review.

This means the Harbor District — and anyone else concerned about pollution around the bay — could benefit regardless of whether Nordic’s proposal comes to fruition.

“We really want this project to go through,” Oetker said. “We’re really focused on that, and we’re convinced they’ll get all the [required] permits. But in the end there is the possibility they it won’t be successful. Our ultimate goal from beginning, when we acquired that site, was to clean it up.”

At last Monday’s meeting, and in the days since, people have criticized the District for being “secretive,” negotiating the lease behind closed doors. But Oetker reasoned that public agencies always discuss real estate deals in closed session — same as litigation and personnel matters. 

One interesting aspect of the lease: The Harbor District doesn’t get to back out of the deal. If California Marine Investments, the Nordic subsidiary, remains in compliance with the agreement and gets all the necessary permits during the three-year option period, only they retain the right to reject the ensuing 30-year lease term and two automatic 10-year extensions. 

The commercial fishermen who attended last week’s Harbor District meeting were skeptical. 

“There’s only one real good solution, and that’s wild, sustainable-caught salmon for our population,” said one.

“The devil’s in the details,” said another. “I’d like to see the growth for this area, but I also want to preserve what’s left of the historic salmon industry.”

Heim insisted that they’re not in competition. “When you look at wild salmon, it’s a fantastic product,” he said. “I personally love it. [But] it’s a higher price point; it’s a luxury fish as I see it.”Plus, the U.S. trade deficit for seafood is so large that there’s plenty of room for more domestic supply without harming existing fisheries, Heim said.

“I’m proposing a partnership … that makes it a win-win for this community,” he told the crowd, assuring them that he’s listening to their concerns.

The company hasn’t yet decided if it will produce salmon or steelhead at its local facility — maybe both in rotation. That decision will be made based on market demand. In their interview with the Outpost Heim and Naess said market forces will also hold the company accountable to its pledge to avoid using GMOs and antibiotics.

Watchdogs, including the environmental nonprofit Humboldt Baykeeper and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, are vowing to keep a close eye on Nordic Aquafarms as it pursues regulatory approval and discharge permits. 

Heim said he’s looking forward to more engagement and dialog. 

“We want to be a long-term member of this community,” he said. Nordic representatives will be back early next month, and once the permitting process gets underway the company plans to have some permanent staff here. “We favor an open and transparent process,” Heim said.

Oetker said people shouldn’t expect things to move too quickly. The public will have ample time to weigh in on environmental issues. As for whether the local fishing industry can coexist with the largest indoor fish farm on the West Coast, Oetker said that’s beyond his agency’s ken.

“The Harbor District is not trying to solve the world’s problems,” he said. “In the end, consumers will make those choices and regulators will say whether fishermen can fish, and which species they can take.”

Friedenbach, for one, is rooting for the project’s success.

“From what I’ve seen it seems very environmentally friendly,” he said. “We’re just hopeful it comes to fruition.”

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