BUCKSPORT — A Maine company, Whole Oceans, intends to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms on a portion of the former Verso mill site.
Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard announced the news at the start of the Feb. 22 Town Council meeting.
Whole Oceans has signed a purchase and sale agreement for a 120-acre parcel from AIM Development.
“It’s exciting times,” said Ben Willauer, Whole Oceans’ director of corporate development. “We’re thrilled.”
The town of Bucksport did not offer, nor was it asked to provide, any incentives to Whole Oceans to site the salmon farm in Bucksport, Lessard said.
The company intends to start construction on the first phase of the farm this year with production under way by 2019. Ultimately, Whole Oceans will have the proposed $250-million aquaculture development fully operational by 2020.
Demand for salmon is high.
The United States consumes 500 metric tons of salmon annually — not counting Pacific salmon, Willauer said.
“The demand is really being driven by — if you’re over the age of 40 or 50 — your cardiologist telling you to increase your fatty fish intake.”
Salmon is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which are supposed to be good for the skin and eyesight.
The site itself is perfect for a salmon farm.
Replicating in another geographic area what the Verso site offers Whole Oceans would be “very expensive,” Willauer said.
“You want to be proximal to both fresh and salt water,” Willauer said. “You want to be able to store that water outside of your facility as well as in your facility. That spot is ideal.”
Silver Lake, which was built by the paper mill for the papermaking process, has a large gravity-fed flow into the facility, Willauer said.
“Bangor is a wonderful transportation hub,” said Willauer, especially with Interstate 95 being 20 minutes away. Boston and Miami are the two main hubs for seafood in the United States, he said.
AIM Development Vice President Jeff McGlin said Bucksport’s deep water port was another draw for shipping purposes.
The development will eventually provide hundreds of jobs, McGlin said.
To start, approximately 50 jobs will be created, from administrative to marine biologists to electricians to laborer positions.
The proposed salmon farm will be funded through “private investment,” Willauer said.
Whole Oceans intends to run the salmon farm as a recirculating aquaculture system.
That’s a technique for raising fish in a closed, indoor land-based system, the company states on its website. Water is continuously recirculated through a purification system, which conserves water and eliminates the need for antibiotics.
“Our recirculating aquaculture project is the largest in North America, positions Whole Oceans as a leader in domestic Atlantic salmon production, and fundamentally addresses urgent food security and conservation needs,” the company stated in a press release.
Whole Oceans is now in a 30-day due diligence period before the sale is final.
“Essentially what we’re doing is we have established right and title to the land,” Willauer said. “In doing so, that allows us to test different aspects of the property that we weren’t able to test previously. It’s really focused around environmental engineering, basic site work. Nothing I would call critical to the project. It’s an industrial site, obviously.”
After the sale is complete, permitting with the town of Bucksport and the state and federal governments will ensue.
Whole Oceans intends to hold a public meeting in Bucksport this month to answer questions about the proposed development.
Lessard said the mill had been valued at $250 million when it closed.
“At build-out, this project has the capacity to replace the majority of that value,” Lessard said. “That effect would reduce state aid to education, but the new valuation the town acquired would be able to offset that through property tax.”
“The impact of this development is valuation but it’s also jobs — stable year-round jobs — ranging from marine biologist to administrative personnel, that are a great addition to the community.”
“The stalwart businesses that have survived and stayed with Bucksport” despite the loss of the mill will get a larger customer base and better chance for survival, Lessard said. “It gives entrepreneurs who want to serve the industry an opportunity.”
“The investment is wonderful for the community,” Lessard said. “It’s an environmentally friendly industrial application, which is what the community was hoping for in terms of an industrial return to the property.”
“I do anticipate that a TIF [tax increment financing] will be involved in this development,” Lessard said. “But that’s consistent with the former industrial use of the property.”
Lessard said Verso had a TIF agreement with the town of Bucksport.
Under a TIF, in exchange for making capital investments to a site, for a period of years, a company would get a tax rebate.
“The value added is so big, it’s a big shot in the arm for the community,” Lessard said.
As of yet, however, Whole Oceans has not requested a TIF agreement, the manager said.
McGlin said the Whole Oceans project leaves about 130 acres for further redevelopment. AIM is working with several prospective groups for the remainder of the site.