Freshwater salmon farming in Maine

April 16, 2020

From Bob Haefner, Agriculture and Rural Policy Adviser:

A proposed salmon farm in the Town of Belfast, Maine, has become a source of controversy and divided the town.

Maine now has two fresh-water salmon farms in the building stage in addition to the proposed farm in Belfast. There is a small farm under construction east of Bar Harbor, and another about to be built in Bucksport on a designated brownfield site of an old paper mill. These three farms have the potential to double the production of salmon in Maine, which has been raising salmon since the 1970s.


fish swimming

"Atlantic Salmon" by matt.hintsa is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Community support for the Bucksport and Bar Harbor projects has been particularly strong. The proposed project for Belfast is currently in the permitting phase and has majority support in town, although there is a very vocal minority opposed to the project. Like the other two, the Belfast proposal will use Recirculating Aquaculture System (RAS) technology. The Belfast salmon farm is to be built by Norway’s Nordic Aqua Farms, which chose Belfast because of its abundant water supply from freshwater streams and wells as well as its proximity to Penobscot Bay. Nordic Aqua Farms has planned a $500 million capital investment in Belfast that includes a contract with the town water company for a minimum sale of water to the fish farm. After the five-year build out, the project will employ 75 people, and Nordic will contribute approximately 20 percent of Belfast’s local taxes.

Salmon are an anadromous species, living in saltwater but returning upriver to their freshwater place of birth where they lay their eggs. The young salmon are born and spend their youth in fresh water, then make their way to the ocean to complete their growth to maturity.

The Atlantic salmon is the only species of salmon native to the Atlantic Ocean; it is an endangered species, and therefore cannot be fished. Thus the only source of Atlantic Salmon is through salmon farming, a $15.5 billion global industry now dominated by Norway and Denmark; Canada is also a large player.

The farming of Atlantic salmon has traditionally harvested eggs in freshwater facilities, which are then moved to saltwater fish farms in protected bays. Most salmon farms today use this process. The process for Pacific coho salmon starts in fresh water and ends in salt water. Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, can be hatched in fresh water and stay in fresh water for the entire lifecycle until harvesting; new technology now enables Atlantic salmon to be raised inland in very large tanks.

This new technology to farm Atlantic salmon has its advantages and disadvantages. On the pro side, there is no chance for the salmon to escape the tanks and mix with native salmon. The process has a smaller environmental impact and is less expensive. The freshwater farms have their own wastewater treatment facilities in a closed system where waste can be contained and treated, which reduces odors and creates a fertilizer. The main argument against this technology is that the farms use a lot of water and must locate farms where water is abundant.

Chris Rector in Senator Angus King’s office in Augusta was very helpful in explaining fish farming in Maine, and in particular the proposed freshwater salmon farms discussed above. Rector had been both a state representative and a state senator in Maine for 10 years, and served on the Joint Committee on Marine Resources during his entire time in the legislature.

By the year 2050, the world population is projected to grow from 7.6 billion to 9.5 billion. Agriculture and aquaculture must be able to provide enough protein for increase in population. With its Maine facilities and other installations around the world, Nordic is banking on the prediction that farm-raised Atlantic salmon can help feed the world with high quality protein.


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