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Nordic Aquafarms land acquisition faces backlash from conservation easement

Nordic Aquafarms has plans to build a salmon farm in Belfast, Maine, but a conservation easement already in place in the area may halt their plans.

Nordic Aquafarms has been planning to open a salmon farm in Belfast since 2018. The company proposed a land-based aquaculture facility with a seawater access system, several buildings for fish production, a water treatment plant, an administrative office and other associated structures.

The farmed salmon industry has grown significantly in recent years. According to the Global Salmon Initiative, more than 50% of seafood eaten worldwide currently comes from aquaculture systems. An “aquaculture system” is the farming of fish, shellfish or mollusks. Currently, aquaculture is the fastest growing global production sector.

Nordic Aquafarms planned to install a discharge pipe in Belfast Bay. Last August, the City of Belfast condemned by eminent domain the strip of intertidal property the company needed for their pipe, created its own easement and gave the land to Nordic Aquafarms. 

Eminent domain allows the government to take private property and convert it to public use. The Fifth Amendment asserts that the government must justly compensate private property owners for any property they take. Although giving the land to Nordic Aquafarms does not technically qualify as “public use,” the Supreme Court held a ruling in 2005 in Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut 545 U.S. 469, that benefits a community would enjoy from the furthering of economic development are sufficient to qualify as “public use.”

Citizens of Belfast, as well as local activists, have taken issue with Nordic Aquafarms’ acquisition of the land. Opponents argue that a conservation easement in place should prohibit Nordic Aquafarms from installing their discharge pipe there.

In late December, Maine’s Attorney General Aaron M. Frey argued in a complaint filed with Waldo Superior Court that a pre-existing conservation easement that prohibits commercial or industrial use of the area was still in effect. The owners of the intertidal property the city took by eminent domain had indeed placed a conservation easement on the land to protect it from industrialization.

The City of Belfast was aware of this conservation easement and had sent a letter to the state’s Attorney General’s office requesting to terminate the conservation easement. The request was denied, but the city acquired the land anyway and gave it to Nordic Aquafarms.

In an October issue of The Working Waterfront Newspaper, John Krueger openly criticized Nordic Aquafarms. Krueger holds two chemical engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a retired division director of licensing and enforcement at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. 

“Recently acquired documents from Gov. Mills’ office requested through freedom of information laws illustrate strong corporate lobbying on Nordic’s behalf and government contacts with regulators,” Krueger writes in his op-ed piece.

Krueger also asserts that Nordic Aquafarms’ business plan was to raise 33,000 metric tons of fish per year. Raising this amount of fish would create 7.7 million gallons of liquid waste per day that contains 1,600 pounds of nitrogen would use large amounts of groundwater and would require approximately 28 megawatts of electricity from the region’s power grid.

Krueger argues that Nordic Aquafarms’ plans are not environmentally friendly and that the regulations for this kind of project are basically nonexistent.

The president of Nordic Aquafarms, Erik Heim, wrote a rebuttal to Kreuger’s op-ed in the same newspaper a few weeks later. Heim accused Krueger of having an “activist agenda” and of distorting the facts. Heim says that Nordic Aquafarms’ environmental and ocean protection standard far surpasses existing operations on an international scale, which has been vetted by the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Marine Resources, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

The discourse between Krueger and Heim is exemplary of the disagreements between proponents and opponents of Nordic Aquafarms’s salmon farm.

Whether Nordic Aquafarms can begin to build their discharge pipe or not will depend on who is ultimately granted ownership of the intertidal land that Belfast gave to them.

7 April 2022 correction: Third paragraph was removed to accurately reflect the international and local presence of Nordic Aquafarms.

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