Nordic Aquafarms water discharge plan could set bar

Undercurrent News

Nordic Aquafarms water discharge plan could set bar for salmon RAS farms

By Jason Huffman Oct. 12, 2018

The 7.7 million gallons of water that Nordic Aquafarms’ new land-based Atlantic salmon farm in Belfast, Maine, will -- in a few years -- pump back into its local bay every day will, in some ways, be cleaner than the water it takes out, Erik Heim, president of the company’s North American operations, told Undercurrent News.

In fact, the level of pollutants removed could set the bar for all large-scale recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) operations to come in North America.

”It’s going to be challenging to follow us because we have set a standard that’s pretty high, but that’s going to be good for the industry,” said Marianne Naess, Nordic Aquafarm’s director of operations for North America.

Post-construction architectural view of Nordic Aquafarm facility in Belfast, ME.   Image from Nordic Aquafarm

Undercurrent interviewed Heim and Naess on Oct. 10, a little more than a week before they aim to submit their application for a Maine Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (MEPDES) permit, revealing the level of pollutants that will flow from the open end of a discharge pipe set 35-feet deep, more than a half mile into Belfast Bay.

The application had to be written to cover the annual production of 33,000 metric tons of salmon per year, though that is a distant goal for Nordic Aquafarms. The company is most immediately on course to break ground in 2019 and begin production at a pace of about 16,000t per year in late 2020.

A little more than a week before talking to Undercurrent the Nordic Aquafarm execs shared their water discharge plan with about 175 mostly local residents at a Belfast-area middle school in a state-required public information meeting, taking a few anxious questions from the crowd, all of which must be transcribed and included in their MEPDES application.

Nordic’s plan focuses on four numbers that could provide important thresholds for future RAS facilities in the US to meet, as Heim noted that most states employ similar regulatory approval processes for such projects.

The one category where Nordic Aquafarms looks the best is on total suspended solids (TSS).

TSS, in salmon aquaculture, commonly refers to unconsumed particles of feed and also fish feces, which can reduce water quality and impair marine life, the execs explained. While the water that Nordic Aquafarms will take from Belfast Bay was measured as carrying a TSS level of 6.9 to 11 milligrams per liter, the maximum TSS level it will return will be a concentration of 6.33 mg/l, the company estimated in a summary document. 

As for phosphorous, one of the nutrients commonly associated with causing the growth of algae, the bay maintains a level of 0.012 to 0.024 mg/l, though Nordic Aquafarms will return water with a maximum phosphorous level of 0.20 mg/l.

“This discharge level is equivalent to the amount of natural run-off from about 20 average lawns,” the company said.

Also, when it comes to nitrogen, another nutrient commonly associated with stimulating algae growth, the bay maintains a level of 0.17 to 0.48 mg/l, while Nordic Aquafarms will return water with a nitrogen level as high as 23 mg/l.

The company notes that 11.6% of the nitrogen now in the bay comes from agriculture runoff, while 17.7% comes from other sources, including business parks, strip malls and housing developments. The salmon plant will add about 0.75% to these nitrogen levels.

Over time, the company said, the nitrogen will drop to a level of 0.3 mg/l, “a concentration that is protective of eelgrass beds, the most sensitive sea life in the vicinity, within a short distance from the proposed discharge pipe.”

Also, with regard to biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), a measure of the amount of oxygen receiving waters will need to use to handle incoming nutrients, the bay has been measured at a rate of 2.0 mg/l, though Nordic Aquafarms plans to put back a higher concentration of 5.55 mg/l.

In the case of all four pollutants, the amounts will be further diluted as they move away from the discharge pipe, the company is careful to explain.

Heim is proud of his company's expected water discharge numbers.

“We have gone above and beyond anyone in the industry with our [pollutant] removal rates,” he said. “I have not seen anyone anywhere close to taking out these levels.”

“When you start scaling up, you need to step up your environmental profile of discharge treatments,” he said. “We’re looking to the future, thinking about where this needs to go, and we’re stepping this up to a new level we haven’t seen in the industry so far.”

Why lobsters may get to eat salmon, too

Heim and Naess are careful to explain that the numbers they shared with MEPDES are on the high end of the range of pollutants that their future plant will put into Belfast Bay. One factor that could reduce the numbers is the type of feed that Nordic Aquafarms chooses. It's a decision the company is about 18 months away from making, Heim said.

“There has been a lot of innovation happening in the feed industry, so it makes no sense for us to choose a feed now when production won’t start for two years,” he told Undercurrent.

But regardless of which feed is selected, Naess stressed that the level of pollutants discharged will not and can not exceed those listed in the MPDES application. The numbers provided to the state took account of a variety of different feed types and leave all options on the table, she said.

Another point of clarification the two executives are careful to make is that none of the technologies being used by Nordic Aquafarms to reduce the pollutants it releases were invented by the company, but are commonly employed at all companies that must treat wastewater. Heim said Nordic Aquafarms will employ a combination of bacteria in fish tanks that are not harmful to the fish or environment as well as membrane filters with mesh sizes of ultra-fine levels (0.4 micron) and also the use of strong ultraviolet rays.

For reference purposes, the human hair is 75 microns, by contrast, and the human eye struggles to see anything smaller than 50 microns.

The company has other environmental challenges it must overcome, too.

A 3-D representation of Nordic Aquafarms' future land-based Atlantic salmon campus in Belfast, Maine.

Because Nordic Aquafarms plans to process its fish on site, in Belfast, it’ll need to come up with a method for disposing of lots of offcuts. For the time being, the plan is to compost unused pieces of salmon, Heim said, however he has had talks with the local lobster industry and is looking into ways the offcuts can be used to supply much-needed bait. He said the company must first seek all necessary state approvals, including a health certificate to guarantee that the product is pathogen free.

“From a fully expanded facility, once we’re there, [the offcuts] would equal the amount of bait fish taken out of the coastline”, Heim said.   

If all of this technology and engineering sounds expensive, that’s because it is. Nordic Aquafarms is expected to spend $150 million on the first phase of its project. Such large capital requirements are among the reasons earlier efforts at land-based aquaculture farms in the US have struggled to make money, Heim said.

“You need scale to make the economics work,” Heim said. “That’s been the history of the early innovators. It’s really hard to make money on small farms.”

Nordic Aquafarms, which is still scheduled to begin construction on its Belfast, Maine, plant in the second half of 2019, be fully operational by late 2020, and eventually expand to produce 33,000t of fish per year, is one of three companies looking to build large-scale Atlantic salmon RAS facilities on the East Coast of the US. Combined, the three companies could produce more than a quarter of the 400,000t of salmon consumed annually in the country within the next few years.

But Nordic is looking beyond Belfast, at other places in the world where it might locate RAS salmon operations. Heim mentioned Asia as an area that might be hungry for more salmon. How it handles water discharge in Belfast could be a factor.

‘The important thing is that we are aiming to build a scalable concept,” he said. “So with the discharge treatment levels we are looking at, we have a lot of options for locations in the future, even in sensitive areas.”

All eyes on the local election

Though Nordic Aquafarms’ new operation in Maine is expected to provide about 60 new jobs to the community with a population of less than 6,700, it has confronted some resistance from local residents.

Many in the area remember earlier dark days when the poultry industry was a presence and dumped its waste into Belfast Bay, also known as Passagassawakeag Bay, an inlet of the larger Penobscot Bay. The waters still hold mackerel and striped bass, but gone are the days when it also supported the commercial fishing of flounder, herring and clams.

One of the local groups to oppose the building of the farm, the Local Citizens for Smart Growth, has started a Facebook page that had nearly 350 followers as of Wednesday.

Two of the most outspoken local opponents to the farm, Ellie Daniels, who filed a lawsuit this summer against the city in opposition to the farm, and Jim Merkel, have entered the race as write-in candidates to sit on the Belfast city council, the Bangor Daily News reports. Joanne Moesswilde, a third candidate already on the ballet, also has spoken in opposition to the farm.

Three of the city council’s five seats are up for grabs.

Many of the fears being expressed about the Nordic Aquafarms facility are more appropriately applied to those related to net pen aquaculture, including concerns regarding salmon escapes, commingling with wild fish, sea lice and the use of antibiotics, the executives told Undercurrent.

Heim stressed that Nordic Aquafarms has “no beef with sea pens”, but said he has spent a fair amount of time explaining the differences.

Some in the Belfast community have been reluctant to take a side, including the Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition. The group on its website advises that it is too early to take a position.

But Nordic Aquafarms has quite a few supporters in Maine, too.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF), a group that advocates for wild-caught salmon and takes on net-pen salmon aquaculture, has spoken in favor of the Nordic Aquafarms project as well as the Whole Oceans RAS operation being built in Bucksport, Maine.

“There have been concerns raised about the amount and location of waste discharge by the farms,” said Andrew Goode, the VP for US programs for the ASF, in an opinion letter for the Republican Journal, a Maine newspaper.

“Our studies and the experience of the industry is that 99% of solids and phosphorous are removed, as well as 60% of the nitrogen, which compares very favorably to other industries," Goode said. "In addition to Maine’s strict permitting processes for discharge, these companies have every incentive to maintain a healthy coastal environment, as they are drawing in the same saltwater to grow the fish.”

Donald Perkins, president and CEO of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, a Portland, Maine-based not-for-profit organization which stresses its independence in helping to “catalyze solutions to the complex challenges of ocean stewardship and economic growth in the Gulf of Maine bioregion”, also supports the Nordic Aquafarms effort. He’s preparing a letter to be sent to the Belfast mayor and MEPDES.

“Nordic Aquafarms has gone beyond addressing normal discharge permit environmental engineering requirements to observe that the ultimate risk and determinant of ecosystem impact will be operating practices,” Perkins told Undercurrent in an email. “The fact that Nordic Aquafarms brings Norwegian operational expertise and experience is the best insurance Maine could ask for against such operational risk.”

Michael Timmons, an environmental engineer at Cornell University who has studied aquaculture for more than 20 years and is not involved in the Nordic project, is similarly upbeat.

“There’s always some risk, but the risk of the land-based system is a small percentage of the risk of an outdoor system,” Timmons is quoted as saying in a recent article published by the Scientific American.

He believes the Nordic Aquafarms facility will pave the way for more large-scale RAS farms around the world.

“If this facility is as successful as it appears it can be,” he says, “then that will certainly incentivize others to do similar types of farms”, he said.

Contact the author jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com