Bucksport RAS Makes Management Changes


US RAS salmon farmer makes CEO change, parts ways with development chief

By Jason Huffman Oct. 26, 2018

Rob Piasio is out as the CEO of Whole Oceans, a company he founded four years ago that has the intention of operating one of three large-scale recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) Atlantic salmon facilities on the east coast of the United States.

Architectural rendering of Whole Oceans facility at Bucksport, ME.

The company, which announced plans in February to build a plant in Bucksport, Maine, that aims to produce 5,000 metric tons of salmon per year in its first phase but ultimately 20,000t annually, announced Oct. 25 that it has promoted Jason Mitchell from his role as chief operating officer (COO) to the position of president, a title not previously held at the company.

Mitchell was hired as COO in May after previously working as the director of production at Bath (Maine) Iron Works, the founder and co-owner of San Diego, California-based Helms Brewing Company, which he sold in 2017, and in several positions with General Dynamics.

"Mitchell has had extensive experience in operations management and manufacturing," the company said in a press release.

“I am honored to receive this vote of confidence from the board and look forward to building on the company’s achievements,” Mitchell is quoted as saying in a press release. “A project of this scale takes time, but we are making great progress. I am looking forward to continuing to work closely with our team and the town of Bucksport as we move through the permitting process toward construction next spring.”

Piasio, who founded Emergent Holdings, the parent company of Whole Oceans, in January 2014 and started Whole Oceans nine months later, will continue to serve on the company's board of managers, according to a press release.

Additionally, Whole Oceans is now referring to Michael Chorske as its "executive managing director" and treating him as one of the most important members of its reduced five-person staff.

Chorske, who was not previously identified on the Whole Oceans website as a member of its executive team, is reported by his LinkedIn page as having joined Emergent Holdings in June 2015 and serving as its managing partner after more than 20 years of working heavily in the investment capital industry. 

A high CAPEX meant keeping team small

But those aren't the only changes Whole Oceans has made. Ben Willauer is also out as the chief development officer, he informed Undercurrent via email.

Willauer joined Emergent and Whole Oceans in January 2017 after working three years for Ridgeline, a Northport, Maine-based leadership development company, according to his LinkedIn profile. He told Undercurrent News in an interview in August, however, that he had been working with Piasio since 2015 and helped him to identify different aquaculture investment opportunities. More recently, he often served as the face of the organization in efforts to maintain good relations with the community.

It's not yet clear what the company's reasons for the management shakeup might be. It declined to answer questions about its capital position or if there was any sense of dissatisfaction with the performance of its executive team.   

Willauer stressed in August that Whole Oceans was not in a race to finish ahead of the two other large RAS facilities planned for the East Coast (Nordic Aquafarms in Belfast, Maine, and Atlantic Sapphire, in Homestead, Florida). Rather, he told Undercurrent, the three companies were working collaboratively.

“There’s no reason to compete materially because the demand outpaces what we can do," Willauer said at the time. "All of us are trying to build the best facility and the best teams possible. But the economics are all there for us and 10 more [companies] in terms of demand.”

Willauer declined to be interviewed by Undercurrent on Thursday evening. He forwarded along a blog he published on his own website titled "Why I'm leaving Whole Oceans," though it doesn't really answer the question directly.

In the blog Willauer described his former job with Whole Oceans as "the thrill of [his] professional life" and said he more than achieved his goal of assisting "in the development of an institutional-scale Impact investment that brought sustainable economic development to Maine."

But he also hinted at the stress for the company caused by maintaining staff and attempting to make progress over such an extensive period while generating no income. Whole Oceans has estimated the first phase of its project, transitioning from development to execution, will cost $75 million.

"The challenge Whole Oceans faced as we formed this new company was the high upfront CAPEX (capital cost) due to the time it takes to construct a facility (approximately one year) and grow our fish (approximately two years)," Willauer wrote in his blog. "As we are a startup, this challenge required us to keep our team small as we worked to de-risk critical elements of the project."

Bucksport town manager isn't losing sleep

Whole Oceans said in its press release announcing the changes that it remains on pace to begin construction in 2019.

Whole Ocean said it is "in the permitting phase and it's going well. The company has been in dialogue with local regulators for two years and has enjoyed working with permitting authorities, but the process just takes time."

Whole Oceans has yet to purchase the 120-acre property at the head of the Penobscot Bay, the former site of a paper mill, where it announced in February that it plans to set up shop, Susan Lessard, the Bucksport town manager, confirmed when she was contacted by Undercurrent on Oct. 26.

A sign welcomes visitors to Bucksport, Maine, the future home of Whole Oceans' land-based salmon farm. Visible in the background is the vacated paper mill that's to be torn down to make room. Photograph by Jason Huffman.

She didn't seem concerned about the timetable, however, and was somewhat understanding of the recent changes. She said the community remains very supportive of the Whole Oceans project, noting that the company's management team recently met with her and Rich Rotella, Bucksport's economic development director, to discuss its transition from development to operations.

"In any startup multi-million dollar entity, there are phases that development goes through," she said.

"Ben was an important and visible member of their development team," she said, but added: "I am confident that the Whole Oceans project will move forward successfully."

Lessard said she expected Whole Oceans to complete its purchase of the former mill site after it receives its waste discharge permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The comment period ends Oct. 29 on its earlier submitted application.

Discharge plans are realistic

The Maine newspaper Republican Journal reported this week that Whole Oceans' discharge application with the state shows worse numbers than those put forth recently by Nordic Aquafarms.

Nordic Aquafarms has suggested that it will discharge 7.7m gallons of water daily into Belfast Bay when it is fully operational and producing 33,000t of salmon annually, the company's long-term goal. The Nordic Aquafarms facility would discharge 357 pounds per day of biochemical oxygen demand, along with 1,483 pounds of nitrogen and 13 pounds of phosphorus, the newspaper noted.

Whole Oceans suggested on its DEP application that it would discharge 18.6m gallons of water daily into the Penobscot River when it is at full capacity and producing 20,000t of salmon annually, a 15-year goal. Its plans call for discharging almost 10 times the amount of suspended solids as Nordic Aquafarms while maintaining more than 21 times the biochemical oxygen demand, the newspaper reported.

Whole Oceans' average nitrogen content would be 2.6 times the maximum level of Nordic Aquafarms.

Though the waste discharge plan for Whole Oceans looks much worse than the one being put forth by Nordic Aquafarms, one RAS consultant interviewed by Undercurrent suggested the company's numbers are more realistic and its performance is likely to be better than proposed.

Whole Oceans noted in its press release that it also has other applications for permits pending or yet to be filed with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and the Town of Bucksport.

Contact the author jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com