JONESPORT — Before planting even the first seeds, terrestrial farmers cultivate the land from which they hope to harvest a crop. Smart fish farmers are no different, so on a rainy Tuesday last week, Tom and Megan Sorby, the on-site operations team for the Netherlands-based aquaculture company Zeeland Kingfish, settled in at the Moosabec Video & Variety on Main Street at noon to give curious community members a chance to drink some coffee, nibble a homemade pastry and talk informally about the company’s plans.
Those plans involve building a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art land-based facility on the edge of town to raise high-value yellowtail, also known as Hamachi, for the fresh and sushi markets.
The coffee hour was the second in a series of what the company is planning as a regular monthly event aimed at keeping the community informed, and in favor, of a plan to build a 15- to 20-acre, state-of-the-art recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility on a 94-acre waterfront site east of town at the corner of the Mason Bay Road and Dun Garvan Road.
Community engagement is high on the company’s agenda. Later in the day, the Sorbys were scheduled to deliver an informal “Aquaculture 101” talk at Jonesport’s Peabody Library to discuss recirculating aquaculture systems. Kingfish Zeeland scheduled two sessions, one at 2 p.m. and the other at 6 p.m., “to accommodate Jonesport residents’ working schedules,” company spokeswoman Dianna Fletcher said.
Attendance at the early afternoon get-together was sparse, but enthusiastic. Over the hum of conversation from a rotating cast of mostly older fishermen enjoying a game of cribbage at a nearby table, the Sorbys chatted with a group including Selectmen Billy Milliken and Harry Fish Jr., Jonesport Shipyard owner Sune Noreen and former selectman William “Bimbo” Look.
So far, the Jonesport community seems receptive, even enthusiastic, about the Kingfish Zeeland plan.
“The town is certainly supporting them,” Fish said. “One post on the town website is the only negative response we’ve had.”
That was Look’s take as well. While Downeast people are “clannish,” he said, they will welcome newcomers who talk openly with local community members about their plans.
“That’s the approach these guys have taken,” Look said. “Nine out of 10 people in Jonesport are in favor of this.”
The coming of Zeeland Kingfish, if it happens, will have an enormous impact on the town.
Last month, the company’s chief financial officer said the total cost of the project could reach $110 million.
As the broker involved in the sale of the Dun Garvan Road site to Kingfish Zeeland, Milliken said he has pretty much stepped back from any role the selectmen might have in connection with the proposed facility to avoid any possible conflict of interest. Still, he said, the completed development would add $100 million to the town’s real estate valuation and could increase the school population because new jobs would likely bring new families to the area.
“The mill rate,” the figure used to calculate real property taxes based on assessed value, “should go down,” Milliken said.
While an increase in the assessed value of the town will have some financial implications, county taxes would likely rise, the new facility “is not going to be a financial burden to the town,” Fish said. “There’s more than enough added tax value to lower the mill rate.” In any event, he said, the town will conduct an independent study of the “tax issue” before the project proceeds.
Kingfish Zeeland plans to build an RAS facility initially capable of producing 6,000 metric tons of yellowtail annually. Tom Sorby said last week the company hopes to have all necessary permits in place within 12 to 18 months and would then begin construction. In the meantime, Kingfish Zeeland isn’t relying solely on coffee and cream pastries to cement its relationship with the Jonesport community.
The Sorbys have met with several Jonesport High School students at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, where the company is developing its yellowtail broodstock, and they are working with local educators to develop a high school aquaculture curriculum. They are already working on a small-scale project at the high school, where they spent Tuesday morning with students.
While the Sorbys stay busy establishing the company’s broodstock facility in Franklin and working with the community locally, next month Kingfish Zeeland CEO Ohad Maiman and a team from the Netherlands are scheduled to visit Jonesport for continued discussions with the community.