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Might Humboldt Bay Fish Farm Be a Raw Deal?

Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company, has announced plans to build a land-based fish farm in Humboldt Bay.  The plan was warmly received by local officials, and local media coverage has been generally positive, but is Nordic Aquafarms the green jobs-creator it claims to be?

Nordic Aquafarms was also well received by officials in Belfast, Maine in late 2017, but Nordic’s Belfast project has become increasingly controversial, and critics say Nordic is not as green as it claims.

A year and a half into Belfast, Nordic is well behind schedule and the Belfast project itself is in considerable doubt.  

Nordic must establish right, title and interest (RTI) for its intake and discharge pipes to cross intertidal areas to get from its land-based operation to open marine water.  Nordic claims it has RTI, but opposition group Upstream Watch says Nordic knowingly filed false RTI information with state regulators.  In a move that surprised project opponents and local media, Nordic confessed on Facebook to submitting the faulty information, saying it had done so to protect landowners’ privacy and feelings.  

The RTI application was submitted under penalty of perjury, and Nordic quickly took down the post, but not before Upstream Watch screenshot it and sent it to state regulators.  Without RTI, the Belfast project can’t move forward.  

Opposition to the Maine project broke wide open at an April 17, 2018 Belfast City Council meeting, when the council voted 5-0 for a zoning change needed for Nordic’s plans to proceed.  At the meeting scores of Belfast residents urged the council to slow down, and emails from Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum to Nordic CEO Erik Heim obtained under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) show the city received more than 130 written comments urging a project slowdown – none supported Nordic.  

In the emails, Heim said Nordic didn’t want to go where it wasn’t wanted by the citizenry, but Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum repeatedly assured Heim the overwhelming majority of Belfast would support the company’s project and opposition would be limited to a few people who oppose everything.

Slocum was wrong.  

Nordic was clearly surprised by the increasing opposition.  Nordic started to push back, and eventually the gloves came off, on both sides.  Feeling the heat, Belfast city government commissioned a $14,000 report from the global consulting firm Deloitte on Nordic’s financial viability and environmental record.  But no environmentalist was interviewed for the report, and Deloitte had done work for Nordic and had previously written positively about Nordic on at least two occasions.  Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum told Deloitte he had a favorable impression of Nordic, and he told Nordic in advance what specific areas Deloitte would be looking at.  Evidence indicates Heim suggested Deloitte to Slocum, a charge Slocum denies.  

Nordic held a series of public meetings and the opposition became more vocal at each successive meeting.  Attendees pressed Nordic on the content of its fishmeal, as that would affect Nordic’s discharge into the already environmentally challenged Belfast Bay.  Nordic was clearly surprised, and rattled, by the persistent question.

Nordic was also pressed on its claims that fish farms are the most efficient way to produce protein.  Commercial fishmeal is comprised mostly of soy and forage fish, small fish that are linchpins in the marine food chain, and forage fish lose 80 percent of their protein content in fishmeal production.  At one public meeting, a Nordic panelist said humans don’t eat forage fish, but according to Wikipedia, humans consume all 14 of the most common forage fish found in fishmeal.

Nordic’s jobs claims have also drawn scrutiny.  In the face of mounting Belfast opposition, Nordic has twice increased its jobs estimates – one of its key selling points – from 60, to 60-100, to more than 100.  Nordic has given no explanation for the increased estimates.

While twice increasing its job estimates, Nordic has twice decreased the length of its effluent discharge pipe – from 1.5 miles, to one mile, to one kilometer (.62 miles).  Almost a year after shortening the pipe to one kilometer, Nordic’s website continues to state an offshore length of one mile, a figure that was never accurate, as it doesn’t count the pipe’s .3 miles on land.  In a public meeting last October, Nordic said it would correct the online figure, and the company was reminded at another public meeting in December, but the incorrect figure remains on Nordic’s website.     

 

For the first 8-9 months of the Nordic fight, I had a column in Belfast’s Republican Journal newspaper, and wrote extensively on Nordic, but late last fall my column terminated, because of my Nordic coverage.  Nordic has admitted it contacted newspaper management about my coverage, but the company has denied threatening a lawsuit.  Earlier in the fall, before the axe fell, I went to Norway and Denmark and looked  into Nordic’s operations there.  As chance would have it, I have lived in Denmark and speak Danish. 

What I found on the trip sent Nordic to the mattresses.  

In Bergen, Norway I spent a day with Kurt Oddekalv, an environmental activist whose colorful description of farm fish gave me the title of the first column from the trip: “The Most Toxic Food in the World?”  Later analysis, commissioned by me, of fish produced by Nordic in Denmark revealed levels of toxins considerably higher than E.U. consumption recommendations.   

Also in Bergen, University of Bergen professor and fish farm expert Are Nyland told me about fish escapes from land-based farms.  In public meetings that were videotaped and are available online Nordic has acknowledged that fish escapes from land-based fish farms are possible, but Nordic executive Marianne Naess told a Maine legislative committee February 28 that such escapes are impossible.

Fish escapes are important because escaped farm fish can wreak havoc with wild fish populations.  They breed with wild fish and produce offspring that are ill equipped for the rigors of open-water life; they compete with and destroy wild-fish spawning grounds; and they decimate wild-fish populations with diseases to which wild fish have never been exposed.

The jocular Professor Nyland guffawed at Nordic’s online-video portrayal of fish in its land-based operations swimming freely with ample room and said the fish would have to be stacked like cordwood to turn a profit.

In Fredrikstad, Norway, home to Nordic Aquafarms headquarters, I asked Nordic CEO Erik Heim whether Nordic had built its Maximus smolt facility in Denmark.  Heim said Nordic had bought the operation from a Danish engineer and entrepreneur named Bent Urup, and Heim seemed to immediately regret having given me Urup’s name.  Heim said it might be hard to find Urup, who might be somewhere in Asia.

With little trouble, I found Urup online and several days later I interviewed him in his Denmark office,. Urup is perhaps the world’s foremost expert in land-based aquaculture – and he painted an unflattering picture of Nordic Aquafarms.  

Urup spoke of fish disease at Nordic’s Denmark smolt facility, Nordic’s overblown or outright false claims of having built its Denmark facilities from scratch, and of Nordic personnel incapable of running a land-based fish farm.  

It got worse.  

Urup said he believed Nordic was going to hijack his patented fish farm design for its Belfast project.  Urup said another company, InterAqua, had tried that in Australia, had been sued by him, and had lost and gone bankrupt.

In Denmark I also interviewed a 14-year-old former Nordic employee who said he cleaned fish tanks with the chemical Virkon S, and did so without protective eyewear.  Under Danish law, working with Virkon S requires protective eyewear, and 14-year-olds aren’t allowed to handle the chemical at all.  In response, Nordic ducked the Virkon S allegation by saying it had never hired underage workers, a charge I never made.

But it was the Urup column that set off Nordic and a week after its publication my column was terminated.  I have continued to write on Nordic Aquafarms, blogging, and posting to Facebook and an opposition email list.  Among other things, I have reported on emails I obtained in which Nordic CEO Erik Heim discusses substantial delays in construction of Nordic’s Fredrikstad, Norway facility – delays that Heim denied to me last fall.

To garner public support for its proposed Humboldt County project, Nordic Aquafarms has begun to hold public meetings like those it has held in Maine, and according to the Eureka Times Standard, Nordic’s Marianne Naess told a May 21 Eureka public meeting that she would drink discharge from Nordic’s proposed Humboldt County fish farm.  

Given the documented high levels of toxins in farm fish in general, and of Nordic Aquafarms fish in particular – not to mention the general inadvisability of ingesting fish feces – I would urge Naess to choose another beverage.  And given Nordic’s track record in Maine, Humboldt County can expect more such doubtful assertions by Nordic Aquafarms. 

This article first appeared on the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

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Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at lreichard@gmail.com.

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