A Norwegian company plans to build one of the world’s largest land-based salmon farms in Belfast, a project that would create 60 jobs within two years and up to 140 once it is completed, according to the company’s chief executive officer.

Nordic Aquafarms, an international developer of land-based aquaculture, has signed agreements to purchase 40 acres on the outskirts of the city and plans an initial investment of $150 million in the project.

Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim said Tuesday his company chose Belfast after a six-month search that started in Japan and China, then took stock of Ireland and Spain before settling on Belfast. He announced the plan at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center.

Heim cited Maine’s “pristine environment, cold water conditions, long history as a leader in the seafood industry and proximity to major consumer markets in the Northeast United States,” as reasons for choosing the Belfast location.

The new facility would be built on 40 acres abutting Little River. Nordic Aquafarms has signed purchase and sale agreements for a 26-acre parcel currently occupied by the Belfast Water District, which would relocate to accommodate the sale, along with 14 acres from an abutting private landowner.

The company is currently building the largest salmon farm in Europe, but Heim said that facility would be dwarfed by the one planned for Belfast, which would be roughly five times the size.

“We’re building the pilot in Norway, then we’re taking it big in Maine,” he said. He did not say how large the Maine facility would be other than it would not fill the entire 40 acres.

33,000 TONS OF SALMON PER YEAR

The farm would raise Atlantic salmon in large onsite tanks. The company is still completing its land purchases, but intends to close later this year. Plans call for construction to start in 2019 and for the facility to be fully operational in 2020. Once complete, it is expected to produce 33,000 tons of salmon annually, or roughly 66 million pounds, about 8 percent of the current U.S. consumption.

When the facility is completed in two years, it will employ 60 people at high-skilled jobs, said Heim.

Later phases of the project call for a full end-to-end operation – from hatcheries to fish processing – and a total investment of $450 million to $500 million and 120 to 140 jobs that would be filled through a combination of national and international searches and local openings.

Peter DelGreco, head of Maine & Co., a private nonprofit that tries to attract companies to locate or expand in Maine, said the jobs will cover a range of skills, from entry-level to credentialed scientists.

“As new technology, it’s going to attract international scientists as well as people graduating from UMaine with an aquaculture degree who want to get started in a leading edge company, and there are going to be production jobs,” said DelGreco.

The salmon would be distributed by truck and sold principally in the U.S., Heim said. He added that the company plans to buy a fleet of Tesla electric delivery trucks as part of its push to be environmentally sustainable.

The announcement was hailed by elected officials and others. Gov. Paul LePage, who was present at the unveiling, said the investment is a “big deal,” and that his focus on expanding economic ties with Nordic countries has paid off. LePage and other state officials have made several trips to Scandinavian countries in the past few years.

‘BEST CHOICE’ FARMING PRACTICES

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King also applauded the proposal. Collins said in a statement that the proposal was great news for Belfast and surrounding communities.

“Maine’s fishing industry is a vital part of our economy, our coastal communities and our state’s heritage,” she said. “Nordic Aquafarm’s decision to build an innovative, environmentally friendly aquaculture facility in Belfast will help expand this important industry and create new jobs for Mainers.”

King welcomed Nordic Aquafarm in Norwegian.

“Aquaculture is a growing force in Maine’s economy, bringing new jobs and opportunities to our state’s fishing industry,” he said. “Nordic Aquafarm’s facility will build on our state’s rich fishing traditions and promote innovation and sustainability that can help Belfast and the surrounding community thrive. This is an investment in Maine people, Maine jobs, and the future of our economy.”

The company said it intends to raise the salmon using a method that has been rated as “best choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

In the land-based system, fish would be isolated from local fauna, which Heim said would remove the possibility of spreading diseases. The closed system would also reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals that might otherwise be needed to treat the fish for sea lice.

For the past six months, Nordic Aquafarms has been working closely with Maine & Co.; Ransom Consulting Inc.; the city of Belfast and the Belfast Water District, whose property on Northport Avenue the company has an agreement to purchase for its new facility.

DelGreco said he believed Nordic Aquafarm has applied for acceptance into state business incentive programs, such as the Pine Tree Zone and programs administered by the Maine Technology Institute, but has not received anything upfront.