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Humboldt Fish Farm — Raw Deal?

Nordic Aquafarms, a Norwegian company, has announced plans to build a land-based fish farm in Humboldt Bay.  The plan was warmly received by local officials, and local media coverage has been generally positive, but is Nordic Aquafarms the green jobs-creator it claims to be?

Nordic Aquafarms was also well received by officials in Belfast, Maine in late 2017, but Nordic's Belfast project has become increasingly controversial, and critics say Nordic is not as green as it claims.

A year and a half into Belfast, Nordic is well behind schedule and the Belfast project itself is in considerable doubt.  

Nordic must establish right, title and interest (RTI) for its intake and discharge pipes to cross intertidal areas to get from its land-based operation to open marine water.  Nordic claims it has RTI, but opposition group Upstream Watch says Nordic knowingly filed false RTI information with state regulators.  In a move that surprised project opponents and local media, Nordic confessed on Facebook to submitting the faulty information, saying it had done so to protect landowners' privacy and feelings.  

The RTI application was submitted under penalty of perjury, and Nordic quickly took down the post, but not before Upstream Watch screenshot it and sent it to state regulators.  Without RTI, the Belfast project can't move forward.  

Opposition to the Maine project broke wide open at an April 17, 2018 Belfast City Council meeting, when the council voted 5-0 for a zoning change needed for Nordic's plans to proceed.  Scores of Belfast residents urged the council to slow down, and emails from Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum to Nordic CEO Erik Heim obtained under Maine's Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) show the city received more than 130 written comments urging a slowdown on the project – none supported Nordic.  

In the emails, Heim said Nordic didn't want to go where it wasn't wanted by the citizenry, but Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum repeatedly assured Heim that the overwhelming majority of Belfast would support the company's project and opposition would be limited to a few people who oppose everything.

Slocum was wrong.  

Nordic was clearly surprised by the increasing opposition.  Nordic started to push back, and eventually the gloves came off, on both sides.  Feeling the heat, Belfast city government commissioned the global consulting firm Deloitte to produce a report on Nordic's financial viability and environmental record, but no environmentalists were cited in the report, and Deloitte had done work for Nordic and had written positively about Nordic on at least two prior occasions.  Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum told Deloitte he had a favorable impression of Nordic, and he told Nordic in advance what specific areas Deloitte would be looking at.  Slocum told me he found Deloitte on his own, but Nordic CEO Erik Heim told me Deloitte was on a list he gave Slocum.

Nordic held a series of public meetings and the opposition became more vocal at each successive meeting.  Attendees pressed Nordic on the content of its fishmeal, as that would affect Nordic's discharge into the already environmentally challenged Belfast Bay.  Nordic was clearly surprised, and rattled, by the question, its persistent repetition and the persistent demand for answers.

Nordic was also pressed on its claims that fish farms are the most efficient way to produce protein.  Commercial fishmeal is comprised mostly of soy and forage fish, small fish that are linchpins in the marine food chain.  Forage fish lose 80 percent of their protein content in fishmeal production.  At one public meeting, a Nordic panelist said humans don't eat forage fish, but according to Wikipedia, humans consume all 14 of the most common forage fish found in fishmeal.

Nordic's jobs claims have also drawn scrutiny.  In the face of mounting Belfast opposition, Nordic has twice increased its jobs estimates – one of its key selling points - from 60, to 60-100, to more than 100.  Nordic has given no explanation for the increased estimates.

While twice increasing its job estimates, Nordic has twice decreased the length of its effluent discharge pipe. From 1.5 miles, to one mile, to one kilometer (.62 miles).  Almost a year after shortening the pipe to one kilometer, Nordic's website continues to state a “offshore” length of one mile, a figure that was never accurate, as it doesn't count the pipe's three tenths of a mile on land.  In a public meeting last October, Nordic said it would correct the online figure, and the company was reminded at another public meeting in December, but the incorrect figure remains on Nordic's website.     

For the first 8-9 months of the Nordic fight, I had a column in Belfast's Republican Journal newspaper, and wrote extensively on Nordic, but late last fall my column terminated, because of my Nordic coverage.  Nordic has admitted it contacted newspaper management about my coverage, but the company has denied threatening a lawsuit.  Earlier in the fall, before the axe fell, I went to Norway and Denmark and looked  into Nordic's operations there.  As chance would have it, I have lived in Denmark and speak Danish. 

What I found on the trip sent Nordic to the mattresses.  

In Bergen, Norway I spent a day with Kurt Oddekalv, Norway's most visible environmental activist, whose colorful description of farm fish gave me the title of the first column filed on my trip: “The Most Toxic Food in the World?”  Later analysis, commissioned by me, of fish produced by Nordic in Denmark revealed levels of toxins considerably higher than E.U. consumption recommendations.   

Also in Bergen, University of Bergen professor and fish farm expert Are Nyland told me about fish escapes from land-based farms.  In public meetings that were videotaped and are available online Nordic has acknowledged that fish escapes from land-based fish farms are possible, but Nordic executive Marianne Naess told a Maine legislative committee February 28 that such escapes are impossible.

Fish escapes are important because escaped farm fish can wreak havoc with wild fish populations.  They breed with wild fish and produce offspring that are ill equipped for the rigors of open-water life; they compete with and destroy wild-fish spawning grounds; and they decimate wild-fish populations with diseases to which wild fish have never been exposed.

The jocular Professor Nyland guffawed at Nordic's online-video portrayal of fish in its land-based operations swimming freely with ample room and said the fish would have to be stacked like cordwood to turn a profit.

In Fredrikstad, Norway, home to Nordic Aquafarms headquarters, I asked Nordic CEO Erik Heim whether Nordic had built its Maximus smolt facility in Denmark.  Heim said Nordic had bought the operation from a Danish engineer and entrepreneur named Bent Urup, and Heim seemed to immediately regret having given me Urup's name.  Heim said it might be hard to find Urup, who might be in Asia somewhere.

With little trouble, I found Urup online and several days later I interviewed him in his Denmark office,. Urup is perhaps the world's foremost expert in land-based aquaculture – and he painted an unflattering picture of Nordic Aquafarms.  

Urup spoke of fish disease at Nordic's Denmark smolt facility, Nordic's overblown or outright false claims of having built its Denmark facilities from scratch, and of Nordic personnel incapable of running a land-based operation based on his design.  

It got worse.  

Urup said he believed Nordic was going to hijack his patented fish farm design in Belfast, modifying the design in hopes of bypassing Urup's patent.  Urup said another company, InterAqua, had tried that in Australia, had been sued by him, and had lost and gone bankrupt.

In Denmark I also interviewed a 14-year-old former Nordic employee who said he cleaned empty fish tanks with the DuPont chemical Virkon S, and did so without protective eyewear.  Under Danish law, working with Virkon S requires protective eyewear, and 14-year-olds aren't allowed to handle the chemical at all.  In response, Nordic ducked the Virkon S allegation by saying it had never hired underage workers, a charge I never made.

But it was the Urup column that set off Nordic and a week after its publication my column was terminated.  I have continued to write on Nordic Aquafarms, blogging, and posting to Facebook and an opposition email list.  Among other things, I have reported on emails I obtained in which Nordic CEO Erik Heim discusses substantial delays in construction of Nordic's Fredrikstad, Norway facility – delays that Heim denied to me last fall in his Norway office.

To garner public support for its proposed Humboldt County project, Nordic Aquafarms has begun to hold public meetings like those it has held in Maine, and according to the Eureka Times Standard, Nordic's Marianne Naess told a May 21 Eureka public meeting that she would drink discharge from Nordic's proposed Humboldt County fish farm.  

Given the documented high levels of toxins in farm fish in general, and of Nordic Aquafarms fish in particular – not to mention the general inadvisability of ingesting fish feces - I would urge Naess to choose another beverage.  And given Nordic's track record in Maine, Humboldt County can expect more such doubtful assertions by Nordic Aquafarms.


  1. Jason Crews May 29, 2019

    Where is this documented high levels of toxins? And what are they? I think that is a false statement.

  2. Lawrence Reichard May 30, 2019


    I see that someone has posted an online comment on my piece, and that the comment calls into question my assertion that farm fish have high levels of toxins. Attached you will find lab test results, performed by a Danish lab on fish from Nordic’s Denmark plant. The fish was given to a Danish source directly by Nordic Aquafarms. I previously “published” a synopsis of these lab results on the email list of Local Citizens for Smart Growth, a Belfast group opposed to Nordic Aquafarms’ Belfast project. (I got the results after my column in the local Belfast paper was terminated.) That email list list goes out to about 300 recipients. I know Nordic saw this post of mine because a Nordic employee asked me about it; but Nordic has never challenged what I “published” on this.

    And below you will find a brief narrative synopsis/summary of the results by Claudette Bethune, who used to do precisely this kind of analysis for the Norwegian government, until the powerful Norwegian fish-farm industry ran her out (and effectively silenced other scientists who were researching and writing about high levels of toxins in farm fish). Here it is:

    “Yes, these are sample results for dioxin-like PCBs and non-dioxin like PCBs as well as total mercury. I summarize the data in the attached document. As expected, the PCBs are high and a consumer will exceed known daily and weekly tolerable intake levels for all food intake with just a single serving of this fish. So much for ‘healthy product’ claims, really, they need to clean the feed as farmed fish, unlike wild fish, can have such toxins greatly reduced through refinement of fish oils used in feeds.”

    I can also send you a link, or links, to one or more articles by and or about Claudette Bethune in which she talks about farm fish toxicity.

    I don’t know whether you want all this, but seeing that comment, I felt compelled to send this along.

    Hope all is well, Lawrence

  3. Bryant Richardson May 30, 2019

    So much FUD in this, out-right misinformation about the push-back in Belfast and all in all just a bad hit piece on a technology that really is our future if we want to continue to eat fish in a sustainable way.

  4. George May 30, 2019

    Dear California, Belfast resident here. Don’t take this clown seriously. He made up all kinds of crazy here, his own sources went public to declare he had totally misrepresented him and the local papers stopped publishing his whack-a-doo rants. Do your own research. Aside from a handful of NIMBYs ringing their hands and crying about it destroying precious woodland (a strip of scrub pine not 50 years old covering an old farm field right along the major coastal interstate and abutted by a window factory, a vet’s offices and these complainers), most of us are very excited for this opportunity and Nordic Aquafarms has proved an incredibly open and forward-thinking set of people trying to to a good thing AND make a living at it.

  5. Jacqueline Cassida May 30, 2019

    Oh my word. I have never seen such a blatant disregard for the truth! Actually I have, but let’s not get political. This, my friends, is what it looks like when a lunatic is bent on perpetuating egregious misinformation. When he was fired for writing such idiotic non-factoids from our local paper, he’s gone and found himself other forums. Please, for the love of common sense, just pass this one over….

    • Bruce Anderson May 30, 2019

      If you can’t refute the facts, attack the writer, eh Ms. Cassida?

      • Jacki Cassida May 30, 2019

        But…there weren’t any facts. So, yes absolutely.

  6. Mike Samway May 30, 2019

    I’m confused – the Reichard article appeared to be a reasonable, comprehensive investigation.
    Can you specify the FUD items please?

    • George May 30, 2019

      It is written as “reasonable, comprehensive investigation”. The fatal flaw is that all the “facts” are untrue. In regards to the RTI application, you have to understand a lot of New England maritime law to even come close to understanding the issue here. There is a legitimate conflict of interest in “who’s sandbar that is, anyways?” based on conflicts within the law itself and it is up to professional assessors and a judge to figure it out, not Armchair Lawrence here, so it is misleading at best and downright slander at worst to both jump to a conclusion in the matter and to accuse Nordic of double-dealing in the process. Mr. R simply doesn’t have access to enough facts in this particular to put out a responsible assessment of the situation. Let the judge figure it out – that’s what the whole permitting process is all about. Later, He quotes someone as saying “said the fish would have to be stacked like cordwood to turn a profit.” Go into any pet store and ask what happens to fish when you overpopulate the tank at all, let alone “stack them like cordwood.” They die. Fish are notoriously sensitive – you don’t meet their biological parameter, they just drop dead, and quickly. Then he starts talking about Urup. Urup himself contacted the our local paper to complain that Lawrence grossly misquoted him and that was when the paper fired him. Lawrence Reichart has no voice here because he lost all credibility with his own actions. So now he’s off to you guys.

  7. Trudy Miller May 30, 2019

    The comment by Reichard about the analysis of fish which he claims came from a Nordic factory is typical of his work. It is false that the fish was given to someone he knows by Nordic Aquafarms, as their product cannot be acquired that way. Their fish are distributed through a partner of Nordic’s and cannot be purchased off the shelf. In addition, there is no documentation that the tested fish is produced at Nordic’s facility. Reichards presents no evidence (and obviously doesn’t know) of where the fish actually came from.

    We in the Belfast area have been refuting Reichard’s articles for well over a year. He is sloppy, inaccurate and has no credibility. It is impossible to tell if he is a liar or just incompetent. It is a huge waste of time to correct him line by line. I notice he has been pretty silent recently here in Maine which is a nice relief – sorry for you that he has resurfaced in your area.

  8. Harvey Reading May 30, 2019

    A question: how many commenters here either work for the fish farming outfit or are its contractors or are employees of its contractors? Just curious.

  9. Matt Darres May 30, 2019

    Lawrence has been arrested for being a professional protestor. His claims are only from sources that agree with him and will not accept anything else that might contradict his views. He is only in Belfast because he can get attention for himself.

    • Harvey Reading May 31, 2019

      Is being a “professional protestor” a crime? What planet do you live on?

  10. Suzanne May 30, 2019

    Good question Harvey. And it is not true that it is only a few who are concerned or that the only issue in question is a strip of pine scrub that will be taken out. I am not against aqua farming but I do believe NAF should be held to a higher standard than they have hit so far. The potential for damage to the Penobscot Bay is real.

  11. Trudy Miller May 30, 2019

    To Harvey Reading: I think I know or know of all the people in the Belfast area who have commented. The answer to your question is zero. None us have any projected monetary benefit from the fish farm. We just all care very deeply about both our community and the environment.

    Many many residents of this area have reached a point of not being able to be silent in the fact of an avalanche of science denial and pseudoscience from the opponents of the Nordic facility. The people who own and work at Nordic have had (I believe) nine detailed public forums. We have grown to know them. They are science experts, principled and transparent. They are as concerned about the environment and climate change as we all are. That is why they are in the business they are in. Their opponents have to date presented NO credible evidence that the RAS system will either harm our bay or deplete our water supply. Maine has some of the most onerous environmental review in the country and the project has been designed to meet all of the permitting requirements.

    We are sick of the nonsense and the lies. Nordic Aquafarms fish do not have toxins. Reichard is either lying or doesn’t know what he is talking about.

    • Harvey Reading May 30, 2019

      OK, I see where you’re coming from, and understand now why the comments seemed like advertising cheerleading to me. I don’t agree with you, but if you’ve been truthful, then I conclude that your main concern is preserving your job. Do they pay you for making comments? That would not be a “projected” benefit, but a here-and-now benefit.

      Does the outfit pay decent wages (I mean $30 per hour and up), with benefits)? Incidentally $30 per hour was about $4.50 in 1970, which wasn’t great then, but one could get by on it .. with a second job and low rent, or lots of roommates.

      My main concern with these outfits growing anadromous fishes is accidental release of factory fish into what’s left of wild stocks. As I recall, another ocean rancher or farmer got run out of Seattle I believe it was a few months back. Don’t go thinking, or trying to convince me, that you’re doing something to save the planet either, through aquaculture. You’re not.

      Fish farms are as useless as tree farms in terms of conservation as far as I am concerned. Both mainly benefit their owners’ pocketbooks and both have their hired scientostitutes on hand as mouthpieces to make people believe what they say is scientifically credible. Just because they say it doesn’t make it so.

      Thanks so much for responding.

      • Trudy Miller May 30, 2019

        Harvey Reading: As I said above none of us in the Belfast area are being paid now, in the past or presumably in the future, by anyone related to Nordic Aquafarms.

        As for your concern about farmed fish being released into the wild that is not possible with RAS systems. You seem to be confusing net pen farming with land based aquaculture. That conflation is common with people opposed to the Nordic project. Hard to say if they are really that lame or if they are deliberately trying to confuse others. Perhaps if you knew more (or anything??) about RAS systems you wouldn’t feel so negative about them.

  12. Jerry Mueller May 30, 2019

    To Harvey Reading: Leaving aside the integrity of Mr Reichard and whether test results from a Yellowtail tuna (which is what appears to have been tested, based on the sample name) are equivalent to a farmed Atlantic salmon, you ask a question about whether those commenting in support are paid by somebody to express their opinions or work for NAF directly or indirectly. If that at is a direction to pursue you should also ask the same of the other side.
    – Is Mr. Reichard being paid by someone? Trips to Denmark aren’t free. Lab tests such as those Eurofin provided are not free and if done accurately can be quite expensive.
    – Who is paying legal bills for lawsuits filed challenging the operation? Attorneys of whatever focus are not inexpensive and few provide their services for free.
    My point isn’t those commenting are or are not being paid or have some other financial incentive. Maybe they do. But if you are going to bring up the question, it should be asked to both sides.

    • Harvey Reading May 31, 2019

      Sorry, not buying what any of you folks are peddling. It’s pure propaganda as far as I am concerned. I’d be curious what your funding source might be. How come I’ve never seen your names here before, on other subjects? Do y’all spend your time searching the Internet for any comments questioning fish farms, or at least the outfit you all seem to love? Or is it an automated system that gives you a readout every time it finds something that doesn’t praise the outfit?

  13. Lawrence Reichard June 1, 2019

    1. I was paid for the columns on Nordic Aquafarms that were published in The Republican Journal newspaper in Belfast, Maine. Not much, but I was paid.

    2. I have received donations from individuals who are interested in protecting the Belfast Woods, the Little River Trail, Belfast Bay and the aquifer and watershed on which Belfast depends for fresh water. I also received a donation from from the Organic Consumers Association. I have received no money from any company or corporation. Non-profit journalists
    receive donations from individuals and organizations all the time. In fact, they also receive corporate money all the time – just check out the funders of NPR and PBS.

    3. I have on tape every single word that Bent Urup uttered to me. I offered to share that with Courier Publications, but Courier did not take me up on that offer. If Urup and or Nordic Aquafarms would like to sue me, I’d be happy to play the tape in a court of law.

    4. I was not fired by Courier Publications for any inaccuracies. The only reasons given were that I had written too much about Nordic Aquafarms, and that I had “called people liars.” This was an apparent reference to a column in which I said that a statement by a panelist on a panel assembled by Nordic Aquafarms said that humans don’t eat forage fish. As stated in this AVA article, human consume all 14 of the most common forage fish found in fishmeal. Not one of the half-dozen or so purported scientists on the panel of “experts” assembled by Nordic corrected this blatantly false statement. As I wrote in my column, to get one, two or three of the fish species wrong would be a misstatement. But when one purported expert gets all 14 species wrong, and not one of the other purported experts corrects this, then in my opinion, it is a lie. And keep in mind that my columns were opinion pieces. I will also point out that the New York Times and Washington Post call President Trump a liar all the time. When a high-profile figure lies about a matter of importance to a community, it is not only proper for a journalist to call out the lie, I would argue that it is the duty and responsibility of a journalist to do that very thing.

  14. Lawrence Reichard June 1, 2019

    I forgot one thing. It is entirely possible that as a normal, regular consumer, one cannot get fish directly from Nordic Aquafarms, but my source for receiving the fish directly from Nordic Aquafarms is in the food business and is not a normal, regular consumer.

    It’s true that the fish tested was yellowtail, not salmon; but salmon is fattier than yellowtail and thus if salmon were fed the same food as the yellowtail, it would retain even more toxins than the yellowtail.

    And I never said the fish tested was salmon.

    • George Hollister June 1, 2019

      This is not my fight, but the build up of heavy metals in wild fish is associated with how long those fish live. Salmon are short lived and have relatively low levels of heavy metals. Tuna is long lived, and have relatively high levels. So the level of heavy metals can vary by specie, and appears to be related to how much, for how long, and what a fish is eating.

      Farmed fish has, in a very short period of time, become the primary source of fish for human consumption. The last time I looked, I think it was over 50%. It fits a human pattern of first exploiting a living resource, then evolving to farm it. Fish farming can be called animal husbandry. The basic question, is farming better than resource exploitation? 10,000+ or – years ago when some people started to raise sheep, and goats I am sure there was a fight between those who farmed, and those who hunted. Personally, I prefer wild caught salmon. But when I am visiting the South, I prefer farmed catfish over anything that is caught in freshwater. I hear farmed gator isn’t bad either.

      • Harvey Reading June 1, 2019

        George, I’m sure that the fish farmers would gladly hire you to peddle BS for them. You do it so well. But then you should, with your history of helping with the deforestation of the north coast region. Have you looked at a satellite image of the formerly forested areas recently? Tell it to the Farm Bureau and your fellow “foresters”.

  15. Jeff Fox June 1, 2019

    If you forgive me for my bad pun, this strange flurry of comments by proponents of this project has a fishy smell to it.

    Most of these people sound like they’re from Maine, yet they are taking a strong interest in a project being proposed in Humboldt (?), so at this point it’s hard to believe they don’t have something to gain. Most of the comments attack the writer without substance, (“professional protester”… really?), while the writer seems to have an opinion that is at least backed up by some real science.

    So far the commenters have created more skepticism in me about Nordic Farms than Mr. Reichard has.

    • George Hollister June 2, 2019

      Good, point. And that point applies to Mr. Reichard as well. Humboldt County will have to make it’s own decision on this. Farmed oysters are a successful business their already.

      • Jeff Fox June 2, 2019

        I don’t think oyster farming makes for a good comparison. Oyster farming is an ancient craft, going back at least a couple of thousand years. The ancient Romans farmed oysters. Any serious environmental issues would have made themselves known long ago just by virtue of the age of the industry itself.

        While oyster farms are not without environmental concerns they simply don’t have the same potential for harm. Unlike a fish farming operation, oyster farms do not require pumping of clean water into artificial tanks and then exhausting waste water containing concentrated amounts of feces and and who knows what else. Oyster farms rely on ambient water in the bays and estuaries where they are grown, and because they are filter feeders they simply feed themselves with nutrients from the naturally flowing water. A long ways from using artificial fish meal.

        The aquaculture industry is not one that is brimming with credibility. (Just google “Cooke Aquaculture Puget Sound” to read about their attempt to bullshit their way out of a complete failure to manage their operation.) I think it’s a reasonable expectation that any company wanting to operate a facility like this be required to prove absolutely and beyond a doubt that the impacts are as insignificant as they are claiming. At this point it’s starting to look like they are just trying to get by on the cheap, and they’re sugar coating the presentation to keep the public pushback at bay. I can be skeptical of both sides, but at this point Nordic is losing the credibility battle big-time and it is up to them to prove that they are somehow “different” than the other aquaculture operations. They’re not doing a very good job of that.

  16. Harvey Reading June 2, 2019

    I hope the project gets nixed in the state permitting process. It seems to be supported mostly by ignorant, conservative, con artists, you know the kind of morons who send their kids to college to become doctors and lawyers while telling others that college is bad and that they should send their kids to trade school. Look at what their conservative scum kind did to the forests.

    • George Hollister June 2, 2019

      So it goes somewhere else, like Oregon or Washington, and Californians buy out-of-state farmed fish. We do that with a lot of things we consume. If California decided to not consume anything California did not want produced here, or California made impossible to produce here, well imagine that. LOL

      • Anne June 2, 2019

        If any of you have a concern with water quality in your state, you’d be much better served paying attention to your lettuce and strawberry crops. The amount of gunk a RAS operation will add to your water vs. what those crops do is like comparing a raindrop to a swimming pool.

      • Harvey Reading June 2, 2019

        Or the outfit remains on the east coast until it screws up or goes bust. I believe it unlikely that Oregon or Washington will have anything to do with it. Humboldt County is desperate, and not very creative. I mean they even have a statue of a moron, the one who appointed that yapping idiot, T. Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.

  17. RJ Haskins July 18, 2020

    One of the many wonderful things about Belfast, Maine is that you can drink clear, refreshing water directly from the tap. I have an uninformed, unscientific feeling that the Nordic project will bring an end to that.

    • Anne July 19, 2020

      That would be uninformed as our drinking water comes from a different aquifer than the one they are tapping so even if taking out less water than the previous chicken industry did (with no ill effect) somehow caused a problem now, it wouldn’t affect the city’s supply.

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