Hey, Buddy, Wanna Lose Some Money?

Photograph Source: Aquatir – CC BY-SA 4.0

Belfast, Maine, September 16, 2023 – The winds and rain of Hurricane Lee have begun to blow and pelt outside my window as I sit down to write.

As reported earlier in Counterpunch, Nordic Aquafarms of Fredrikstad, Norway wants to build a $500 million land-based industrial fish farm in my midcoast home of Belfast, Maine, population 6,700. It would be the second-biggest industrial project in Maine history. As big as Gillette Stadium, Fenway and two TD North Gardens, combined. That’s big.

Globally, aquaculture, as opposed to wild-caught seafood, accounts for more than half the world’s seafood consumption. It’s a $290 billion business. It’s big.

But the industry is mired in woe of its own making. Investors are making for the exits. Especially from land-based aquaculture. Earlier this year the CEO of Cooke Aquaculture, a big-boy industry player, said land-based technology just isn’t there yet. And five years ago, in late 2018, Bent Urup, the world’s most accomplished land-based aquaculture designer and entrepreneur told me in his Fredericia, Denmark office that Nordic’s personnel weren’t up to snuff. Urup said it’s not enough to fix problems. One has to anticipate problems. One must be able “to see around corners.”

And with fish die-offs nearing a million, and a basement-dwelling stock price, Norway-based Atlantic Sapphire’s world-biggest land-based plant in Homestead, Florida is enough to race the heart of anyone eager to part with their hard-earned funds. Atlantic Sapphire failed to gauge the devastating effect of ongoing site construction on the fish swimming ass to elbow in endless circles in its tanks. No one saw around that corner.

So Nordic has neither the technology nor the staff. Nice. That should pretty much take care of your $500 million right there. And another $500 mil in California. And we’re to believe that investors are forking over hundreds of millions for this dog and pony show?

Here in Maine, five years into the Nordic fight, the tide has recently and rather clearly swung toward the opposition.

With a craven corporatist governor in Augusta and a see-no-evil state Department of Environmental Protection, Nordic’s skids were greased from day one. The state and the City of Belfast have showered gifts on Nordic. Everyone smiled for the cameras. It was all there but the band and the giant ribbon-cutting scissors. State and local pols squawked about swelling tax coffers and wondrous repairs to an aging water system in 250-year-old Belfast. All while Nordic was out gorging on every corporate tax break buffet from Maine to its P.O. box in tax-haven Delaware.

Here you go, buddy, have two years of free dechlorination, courtesy of the grateful taxpayers of Belfast. Always happy to help a flown-in behemoth. No problem.

Meanwhile the waterfront Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. pays its own dechlorination, without which it wouldn’t sell a pint of beer. Never mind that Marshall Wharf has for years employed real, live locals with bills to pay. Merely saying you’re going to hire locals is apparently more lucrative than actually doing it.

Nordic has taken some body blows this year. On February 16, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that Nordic doesn’t own a piece of intertidal land it needs to lay saltwater intake and effluent discharge pipes. Opponents immediately called for revocation of all state DEP and related Nordic permits that were premised on clear title to all needed lands. For six months the silence from Augusta was deafening, but now the state apparatus has woken from its stupor and ground into motion, and the results don’t look good for Nordic. One of five permits was revoked. Another one fell a week later. They’re dropping like flies in October. It was so bad that Nordic rushed to every available microphone to insist it wasn’t going anywhere. Exactly.

Nordic’s permit application ran more than 1,000 pages. All written by BMW-driving attorneys. Do the math. Someone’s hemorrhaging Norske kroner.

Not to mention heating all manner of ghost-town offices meant to convey the fantasy that someone other than lawyers is actually doing work…on a project that’s gone nowhere in five years. The wheels have long since come off the bus. They haven’t stuck a single shovel in the ground, in five years. Every investor’s, well, dream. They’re lining up out the door and around the block.

Land-based projects are being scaled back or abandoned altogether all over the place. Nordic itself shaved its Humboldt County California project from $500 million to some $200 million.

Years ago Nordic said it was $7 million into Belfast. It has to be twice that now, maybe more, and still no end in sight. That’s a lot of tacos to walk away from, but at what point does one stop throwing good money after bad? They should have abandoned Belfast when they discovered they didn’t own the needed mudflats. Anyone paying attention knows that. Instead Nordic tried to hide its lack of ownership, and it failed. That was a managerial gamble, and they lost the gamble. It’s called incompetence, a fly that’s been buzzing around Nordic’s head for years.

Meanwhile Big Aqua is consuming itself. It’s overfishing global-south waters to feed its factory fish, losing most of the original protein in the process. Overfished, industry giant Peru keeps closing its fishing season, putting at risk the food security of local fishing communities. And Big Aqua may have to fall back on even higher soy content in its industrial fishmeal. When was the last time you saw a salmon eating soy?

Here, buddy, have another natural soy-fed salmon, the world’s finest.

And Nordic is looking more and more like a band playing on a lower deck of the Titanic, while one or two Belfast city councilors and a few State of Maine apparatchiks do a mournful dance, and chilly North Atlantic waters lap ever-higher on the few remaining deckchairs.

Hell, I’d invest in the Titanic when it’s already half-way under. Wouldn’t you?

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