March 7, 2022

Millinocket wants in on Maine’s aquaculture boom

By Cliff White

The U.S. state of Maine has become a hub of land-based aquaculture development, and the town of Millinocket wants in on the action.

The U.S. state of Maine has become a hub of land-based aquaculture development, and the town of Millinocket wants in on the action.

Our Katahdin, a local redevelopment group named after the nearby landmark Mount Katahdin, is actively marketing the former Great Northern Paper Co. mill site as an ideal landing spot for a recirculating aquaculture system farm, with Our Katahdin President Sean DeWitt saying the site has many of the attributes European salmon-farming companies are looking for as they seek to expand into the United States.

Millinocket lies more than 40 miles away from the ocean, and all three of Maine’s active large-scale aquaculture developments – Atlantic salmon farms planned by Nordic Aquafarms and Whole Oceans, and The Kingfish Company’s yellowtail farm – are located on sites adjacent to the sea. DeWitt said while Millinocket may not be the first site that comes to mind when looking at potential aquaculture sites in the state, it has many amenities that few other places can offer.

The 1,400-acre site has access to abundant groundwater and affordable energy from local hydropower sources. Our Katahdin has a streamlined permitting process for tenants, opportunities for tax incentives and tax increment financing, and collaboration with the Aquaculture Research Institute at the University of Maine. The site’s anchor tenant, a data center, is willing to share its heated water to promote the vision of a sustainable and circular industrial campus. And most importantly, according to DeWitt, the site lies within 500 miles of 52 million people, providing enormous market potential to prospective fish-farming operations.

“It is a really interesting and unique opportunity,” DeWitt told SeafoodSource. “When you think of aquaculture in Maine, you think of the coast, but we have affordable, renewable power on the site for much lower costs than you would find at other sites in the United States. Aquaculture is power-intensive, and if you want to be a sustainable provider of protein, you need renewable energy. We have that, alongside great access to transportation and markets, and an eagerness to welcome a large-scale industrial aquaculture operation who shares our excitement for sustainable production, job creation, and the return of rural prosperity. We think, when viewed as a campus play, we are a very interesting option.”

The Millinocket mill site has access to up to 126 megawatts of hydropower electricity available 365 days a year, along with Tesla battery storage, a 44-million-gallon per-day wastewater discharge license, access to a rail line served by Canadian Pacific, and Interstate 95 a dozen miles away, according to DeWitt.

“Things are done here at scale. Everything about this site is large, and we are perfectly set up for a large player to come on board, or to be home to a campus of smaller players,” he said. “We aren’t quite in position to have a turnkey facility – we’re not quite there yet, but we’re making substantial progress, including an USD 8 million [EUR 7.3 million] infrastructure project that is refurbishing and reconnecting our power, water, fiber optics, and more.”

DeWitt said Our Katahdin is also open to a smaller aquaculture operation making the mill its home, saying the site offers an opportunity for incremental growth and expansion. Indeed, a circular economy model of aquaculture could work well at the site, according to DeWitt, as there’s plenty room for broodstock and hatchery operations, as well as an aquafeed-production facility.

“We want to look at all different types of investment and to explore every opportunity,” he said. “We believe in the future of RAS and we also recognize that smaller players can also create jobs and benefits for the local community. If it’s a business that fits into the ecosystem here, we remain open and eager to help make that opportunity happen.”

Shane Flynn, an adviser to Our Katahdin, has been leading the group’s aquaculture recruitment effort. He said he has engaged in “several quality conversations with companies and executives who are very interested in seeing the development of aquaculture in the state of Maine and around it, and are eager to see these projects develop further.”

“They’re watching carefully what’s happening in the state,” he said.

Flynn said Our Katahdin has focused on attracting a salmonid farmer from Europe, but is open to conversations with any interested aquaculture firm.

“Obviously, the price salmon commands leads many people to focus on them, but good things are happening with eels in state, and other freshwater species are interesting, too,” he said. “Nor are we exclusively talking to European companies, but that’s where the action is right now. All of the big players who are active in Maine or are looking at Maine right now, have European investors behind them, primarily from Scandinavia. Those are the dynamics of the industry right now. Our approach is to try to work closely with those who are intending to do business in the state of Maine and see how we can be supportive.”

In 2019, Sheridan, Wyoming, U.S.A.-based Aquabanq, the U.S. subsidiary of United Kingdom-based Aquaculture Management and Holding Co., announced it had chosen the Millinocket site as the location of a land-based salmon farm, with a planned completion date of 2022. By 2025, Aquabanq CEO A.J. Shapiro said his company would be producing 11,000 metric tons of salmon at the site.

However, Aquabanq never confirmed it had signed a lease, and repeated attempts by SeafoodSource to contact Shapiro or any other representative of Aquabanq over the past three years have been unsuccessful. In a February 2022 interview with the Bangor Daily News, Shapiro said Aquabanq’s Millinocket plans had been delayed due to mismanagement at other land-based salmon farms causing investor skittishness.

“Norwegian land-based salmon operators have poisoned the well very efficiently,” he said. “Now everybody thinks that the salmon RAS technology is not ready for prime time. It is, of course, sheer nonsense, but it is what it is and the market may need some time to ‘cool off.’”

Maine Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner David Madore confirmed to the Bangor Daily News that Aquabanq did not have any permit applications on file with the state agency. Shapiro said Aquabanq still plans to initiate construction on its farm by 2023 or 2024, but said Aquabanq is turning its attention to shrimp farming in the meantime, citing “less red tape” and a faster harvest time.

DeWitt said he was unable to comment on the status of Aquabanq’s planned RAS facility in Millinocket, citing a non-disclosure agreement, but said there is no active aquaculture project on-site.

“I can’t comment directly, but I can say that we are 100 percent looking for aquaculture tenants,” he said.

Stephen Sanders, the director of mill site redevelopment for Our Katahdin, said the experience with Aquabanq allowed his group to develop its knowledge of RAS and its requirements regarding technology and resources.

“From that, we got fascinated with RAS, especially because we think Maine is setting itself up to have a great future in the aquaculture space,” Sanders said. “We want to continue to explore the possibilities there, especially as the current aquaculture players in state get going on their projects. There’s still a lot to shake out in this breakout industry. We’ll be ready and waiting when the next aquaculture player who wants to come to Maine begins looking around.”

Flynn said he believes Millinocket’s location is more convenient than any of the other sites chosen for land-based aquaculture in Maine, and that the community is more welcoming of industry than other places in the state.

“We have a location familiar with industry – people are not fearful of it, as long as people are doing things the right way. And we’re not on a peninsula, so getting trucks in and out is easier and electricity infrastructure is on site. People are very comfortable with truck traffic – in this municipality, we regard truck traffic as a positive indication of business taking place,” he said. “If there’s one word to describe who we are, it’s welcoming. That’s the message. We welcome people to give us a call, have a conversation, ideally come and see what we’ve got. This team knows people locally, at the state level, and nationally that know how to get projects done, and we want to get an aquaculture project done in Millinocket.”

Photo courtesy of Our Katahdin