Is Big Aqua on the Ropes in Maine?

In February 2018, Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company, burst onto Maine headlines, publicly announcing plans to build the world’s largest land-based fish farm in my midcoast town of Belfast, population 6,700. At $500 million, it was arguably the biggest industrial project in Maine history. 

Maine media gushed. Politicians lined up for photo ops with well-dressed Norwegians. Maine’s famed loggers sharpened their chainsaws. The Belfast City Council rammed through a zoning change despite written public comment that ran 140-0 against the rush job. And the Maine Department of Environmental Protection rolled over.

A year later Nordic announced plans to build a $400 million land-based industrial fish farm in Humboldt County, California. 

And now, five years and untold millions of dollars later, Nordic’s Maine project lies in shambles.

On April 7, Nordic officially asked the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to suspend the permits for which Nordic’s lawyers produced more than 1,000 pages of application material. But even a barnful of lawyers might not be enough to save Nordic as it faces no less than seven lawsuits. Ouch.

In a statement on Nordic’s website, CEO Brenda Chandler whines, I mean shares: “(T)his pause will allow the courts to fully adjudicate the issues raised by project opponents without allowing the delay caused by the endless litigation to run the clock on the permits.” As if it were unseemly to sue to to stop the destruction of mature forest, vital wetland and wildlife habitat, including that of the extraordinary – and threatened – bobolink bird, which, weighing in at all of 1-2 ounces, migrates 13,000 miles a year to southern South America and back. And to stop the dumping of 7.7 million gallons of warm fish effluent into the Gulf of Maine, the fastest-warming marine body of water in the world.

Nordic’s fortunes took a decided turn for the worse February 16 when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Nordic doesn’t own the intertidal land it needs to lay its saltwater intake and effluent discharge pipes. Nordic knew years ago that there was, at a minimum, considerable doubt over ownership of that land, but it failed to report this to the DEP, which – theoretically – requires clear title to all needed land before even entertaining any permit application. Theoretically. DEP knew of the well-documented doubt over Nordic ownership of the land, but buried its head deep in the sand.

Ironically, the intertidal land was for sale when Nordic first came to town, but apparently confident in the success of its hide-and-seek land-ownership subterfuge, it didn’t. And that mistake then cost Nordic untold sums in legal bills. Oops.

Anticipating a Nordic loss before Maine’s highest court, the Belfast City Council seized the land by eminent domain. But in Maine eminent domain can’t be used for private purposes, so the city announced with great flourish plans for a 2.7-acre park, where the whole family could picnic alongside an industrial pump house. And Nordic would be allowed to lay its pipes just offshore from the park. With an effluent dispersal rate of 14 days, park-goers would enjoy bathing in 107.8 million gallons of warm effluent. And families would enjoy dodging 45-mile-an-hour traffic, with limited visibility, while crossing U.S. Route 1 from the park’s parking to the park itself. 

The Belfast City Council apparently thinks its charges are sufficiently imbecilic to swallow this sham park scheme. And now facing a lawsuit over its park scam, the council is hoping Maine’s courts prove equally daft.

There are other signs Nordic may have one foot out the door in Maine. After years of paying rent for a habitually vacant office in downtown Belfast, Nordic recently moved its alleged office to its ever more imperiled construction site. And in its DEP permit suspension request, Nordic didn’t copy Ransom Consulting, its Maine engineering firm, leaving Nordic opponents wondering whether Nordic has cut Ransom loose, to help staunch its financial bleed-out in Belfast. With construction-sector inflation pushing Nordic’s California tab to $650 million, and with Nordic issuing gleeful press releases every time it raises a few million bucks, one wonders how the company plans to raise the minimum of $1.15 billion it now needs for Maine and California. Can it find enough investors who have slept through the widespread reporting of its Belfast woes?

Meanwhile, Nordic is switching its European production from salmon to kingfish/yellowtail, and it may be doing the same in California. In announcing its Europe switch, Nordic cited more favorable kingfish market conditions. But Are Nylund of the University of Bergen, Norway, perhaps the world’s foremost academic aquaculture expert, dismissed that explanation and told me by phone that land-based aquaculture has been unable to solve the problem of salmon disease. Nylund says Kingfish has similar problems, but not as much.

And in California, Nylund’s words are echoed by Alison Willy, a retired fish and wildlife biologist with 40 years’ experience. Willy actively opposes Nordic’s California project and says flat out that Big Aqua, both land-based and sea pen, is currently unable to produce disease-free eggs – for any fish species.

Back in Maine, Nordic could effectively leave town while saying it’s not. The company could say that given market conditions it’s putting Belfast on hold, to focus on California. But with evidence mounting that Nordic may be woefully short of cash, it may make little sense for the company to leave the light on.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at