Just a few months after announcing their departure from Nordic Aquafarms, Marianne Naess and Erik Heim announced the birth of Xcelerate Aqua. Their mission, “to create and invest in companies that pursue smart and efficient aquaculture growth”. At that time, Marianne shared the news on her LinkedIn profile with this comment: “A new chapter in US aquaculture is on its way!”. That new chapter has as its first protagonist Katahdin Salmon, a RAS salmon farm to be built in Millinocket, Maine, of which Marianne herself is the CEO. This is the first of what will be several smaller farms that are a far cry from the mega-farms to which land-based projects have become accustomed in the United States.
Why go smaller? Because of lessons learned, Marianne tells us. When four or five years ago a lot of European projects arrived in the U.S., they came from a long industrial fish farming tradition, especially in northern Europe where projects were big. “I think a lot of these projects underestimated the complexity of permitting and building something in the U.S., so there’s been a lot of lessons learned over the last four or five years”, she explains.
“When we decided we wanted to do something new, we wanted to take that into account, all the lessons learned”, she continues. “We decided we wanted to go smaller than a lot of the proposed mega-farms”. Katahdin Salmon’s plan is to develop a land-based RAS farm to produce 5000 metric tons in phase 1 with an expansion to 10,000 metric tons in phase two of the buildout.
According to Marianne, that takes down not just the risk, but also the capital investments. “It’s hard to raise capital for a huge farm today since there is no proof of concept of that scale”, she explains. And adds another advantage, it makes it more “suitable to integrate into communities”. Therefore, size was the first determining factor in Marianne Naess and Erik Heim’s new project.
However, there is one factor that, after the experience with Nordic Aquafarms, the promoters of Xcelerate Aqua have decided to repeat: the state. Katahdin Salmon’s fish will also be raised in Maine. Why? “I think Maine is a perfect place to farm fish, it has a long fishing tradition. It’s a seafood state, it’s a food state. It has a good brand perception among consumers”, Naess tells WeAreAquaculture.
The novelty concerning their previous project is that this farm will not be on the coast. “We have previously worked on the coast in both Maine and California, and, especially here in Maine, it’s been quite challenging to work on the coast, a lot of opposition to fish farming”, she says. And continues, “we decided: if you’re going to do this in the future in the U.S., there aren’t that many sites on the coast. You need to go inland. You need to make a prototype or system that works inland”.
So, they started to look inland and discovered Millinocket had the perfect site they were looking for. “It has an abundance of clean, cold water”, she explains. “We have found the pre-excavated site that’s free of contamination that we can use with an outfall pipe and power infrastructure. It has 100% renewable power, and it has also permits in place from the time that this operation was a pulp mill. So, there’s a lot of risk elements that we’ve been taken out of the equation with this farm”. As she herself states, an “easier path forward for a farm this size in the U.S.”.
The 100% renewable power comes from a local hydro only a few 100 meters from the facility and Katahdin Salmon will also recycle streams on site. For Naess, the key is a combination of those elements along with being in a natural habitat for fish having cold water, another reason they stayed in Maine.
“We are believers that you should grow cold water fish where you have cold water because that takes down your energy consumption and your risk”, she claims, “one thing is to use clean power, but you also need to be as efficient as possible”. So, they are making the claim of being the most sustainable fish farm in the U.S. and, according to her, they can stand “pretty firmly” behind it.
The Katahdin Salmon facility has a modular design that can be copied for future sites. Instead of building a 30,000 or 50,000-metric-ton facility on a single site, several 10,000-metric-ton facilities will be built, which she believes will facilitate site location and integration into communities.
Finding a good community is so many pieces that need to come in place, Marianne tells us. You need the natural conditions but also to be in a place where you can attract employment – they are going to create about 80 full-time jobs -, and also have other issues covered, such as worker housing, which is not yet an issue in Millinocket, but is in other areas of Maine.
Moreover, companies must be able to convince those who oppose aquaculture because of that combination of the ‘not in my backyard’ approach – “and this is just fair if you don’t want it in your neighbourhood” -, and some environmental concerns. However, she believes that most of these can be addressed by permitting and proof-of-concept testing of these farms.
A view shared by other land-based aquaculture companies, who also point out that the Maine Department of Environmental Protection sets extremely stringent standards for all aquaculture operations in the state.
Katahdin Salmon’s CEO has experience in dealing with opposition to fish farms. “It’s about being transparent and informing and being able to answer both, easy and difficult questions, and working with stakeholder groups, environmental groups, tribes, other interest groups…”, she says.
“It’s just making sure that you are respectful, making sure that they can ask you any questions that they want, then that you answer them and you’re truthful and then you do a very thorough and diligent job in permitting too”, she adds.
It sounds simple when she says it, but not everyone gets the key. While some states like Washington have banned marine aquaculture and advocate for land-based, in others like Maine itself, many of these land-based projects are rejected – one of the latest being Nordic Aquafarms, Marianne’s previous project. We asked her why he believes there is this rejection in public opinion.
“Taking the American perspective, I think there’s not too much knowledge about aquaculture and the industry, and I think land-based is fairly new over here”, she says. Nevertheless, Marianne Naess finds something positive in all this opposition. “They challenged industry to become better”, she says, “that’s moving the industry in the right direction”.
In her speech, Marianne Naess repeatedly talks about the need for a proof of concept demonstrating that salmon can be produced profitably on this scale. Will Katahdin Salmon be that proof of concept? “It’s a general statement more than for us”, she clarifies. “There’s been a lot of announcements of huge mega-farms, and we’ve seen so far that a lot of large projects have been overly ambitious and rushed to market and we need to be able to build up the biomass. So, our approach is that we’re going to do this really thoroughly. We’re going to plan it well”.
From her view, it is essential to deliver on the plans you announce. That’s what they have focused on and that’s why they go down to 5000 metric tons – “which is still a large farm and work”, she points out -. Their objective is to make sure that they do it properly and then expand to an additional 5000. That’s when they will have a proof of concept that could easily be replicated. “The industry is looking for a good proof of concept and also players that are able to meet these targets”, she concludes.
She is convinced that it is challenging but possible. “Outside of the U.S., you see a lot of good success, it’s in the U.S. that it’s lagging behind right now”, she explains. “So, I think there is plenty to show for it. In the global market right now there are many very good cases. I think that proof of concept is coming, and people are starting to succeed and there are some very good projects coming up globally“. With all permits in place and at least an offtake agreement with one distributor, they are optimistic about the future of their role model at Katahdin Salmon.
Lots of things ahead, therefore, but only the beginning of what Xcelerate Aqua has in store. Although Marianne Naess tells us that they are not ready to go public with it yet, the company has a new project almost ready. She can’t tell us what it is, but she gives us a hint: “it’s not like traditional aquaculture like the farm we’re building up here”. Maybe another new chapter in US aquaculture? We will know this spring.