BUCKSPORT — The Penobscot River once teemed with so many Atlantic salmon that the former Verso mill site was known as Salmon Point.
Next year, farm-raised Atlantic salmon may be in production on the site, which is to be renamed “1 Salmon Point.”
“What we’re going to create in Bucksport is a leading edge facility,” said Rob Piasio, chief executive officer of Whole Oceans, the company that will be running the new salmon farm planned for the site. “We will be one of the largest land-based salmon farms in the world and will have the most advanced technology in the world.”
On Tuesday, Piasio and several members of his team addressed 200 Bucksport, Penobscot, Orland and Ellsworth residents, who listened and asked questions during a two-hour hearing held at the Bucksport Middle School Performing Arts Center.
“This project is bigger than Whole Oceans, frankly,” Piasio said. “This project is about the community.”
Piasio described the effort as a “100-year industry.”
To that end, Whole Oceans has been in talks with several schools and organizations, including Regional School Unit 25 (RSU 25) Superintendent Jim Boothby and Maine Maritime Academy President Bill Brennan, about workforce needs.
“One of the bottlenecks for growth is going to be people with the skills and experience to operate these farms,” Piasio said. “It’s extremely important for us to put in place now the training for expansion.”
Consumer demand for salmon is driving growth.
“The salmon market in the U.S. is a big opportunity,” Piasio said. Ninety percent of U.S. seafood is imported. Imported salmon is “second only to oil in terms of national trade deficit. A quarter of the price of wholesale salmon is freight.”
The demand is so great that Whole Oceans’ product has already been spoken for even though production has yet to start and the facility has yet to be built.
Site work will begin this fall, Piasio said. A Hudson, Ind., firm, Pranger Enterprises, which specializes in aquaculture construction management, will build the farm.
Nick Pranger, who co-owns the business with his brother, Gabe, said the technology to be used, a recirculating aquaculture system, may seem new to the United States, but it has been around for some time.
“Because of that, we’re seeing competitiveness in the market,” Pranger said.
Pranger led the audience through a map of the proposed 8.5-acre facility, which will have 24 tanks that are 60 feet in diameter and about 25 feet deep. Each tank will hold over 400,000 gallons of water.
“The infrastructure that’s existing is really fantastic,” Pranger said.
Construction is expected to take 12 to 16 months, after which fish production will ensue. Fifty people will be needed to operate the farm initially. The farm is eventually expected to replace the lost value of the mill, $250 million, said Bucksport Town Manager Susan Lessard.
Ben Willauer, director of corporate development for Whole Oceans, said the technology has “a minimal environmental impact.”
To that end, the salmon farm will use less water than the mill once did.
Bill Taylor, an environmental attorney with Pierce Atwood who is handling the project’s state permits, said the farm would use 1 million gallons of freshwater a day from Silver Lake instead of the 18 million gallons of freshwater the mill used.
The farm would use 3 million gallons of saltwater a day from the Penobscot River instead of the 72 million gallons used by the mill, Taylor said.
This data is from similar recirculating aquaculture systems around the world since Whole Oceans isn’t in operation yet, the attorney said.
Projected discharge into the Penobscot River is 4 million gallons a day. The Verso mill had previously been licensed for 18 million gallons of discharge a day, Taylor said. Incidentally, Taylor has worked for every company that occupied the mill site since 1984.
CES engineer Sean Thies is handling the project’s Site Location of Development Permit application.
Thies said the public should not be affected by any noise from the facility nor any smell. Traffic will be minimal.
Veterinarian Peter Merrill of Kennebec River Biosciences is in charge of “biosecurity” at the company.
Merrill explained that biosecurity means “to minimize production losses from any sources.”
The vet said all eggs would be “certified federal and state pathogen-free.”
“Strict biosecurity firewalls and protocols will be employed,” Merrill said. Kennebec River Biosciences will conduct a “rigorous” surveillance program. “As a vet, I go by the mantra ‘trust but verify.’”
Whole Oceans will import eggs to start but intends to eventually create its own brood stock. The company will work with the USDA National Cold Water Marine Aquaculture Center in Franklin to do so, Piasio said.
Community reaction was largely positive at the hearing.
“I came with a little skepticism and I’m leaving with almost none,” said Ellsworth resident Leslie Harlow, who operates Sullivan Harbor Farm, which smokes salmon.
Harlow asked from where the eggs would be imported.
Piasio said the eggs would most likely come from Iceland.
Harlow also asked about the expected rate of mortality.
Steve Summerfelt, director of Aquaculture Systems Research for the Freshwater Institute, gave an estimate of “5 to 10 percent from egg to smolt.”
Harlow questioned what happens after the salmon is harvested.
“We ship a head-on, gutted product to our distributor’s processing location on the East Coast,” Piasio replied.
Penobscot resident Tom McKechnie, who described himself as a propane technician and plumber, asked how many of the proposed 50 jobs would be for those in the trades.
“Fifteen are probably trade jobs,” Piasio said. Plumbing jobs will be the biggest need, he said.
A small-scale fish farmer traveled from New Brunswick, Canada, to attend the hearing.
“I admire what you’re doing,” said Earl Carpenter. “I hope you have great success. I think the hidden heroes here are your investors.”
Carpenter recalled a Tiger Woods quote: “It’s one thing to be good one day. To be a champion, you have to be good every day.”
“With this equipment, you have to be good every day,” Carpenter said.