The Future of Maine Aquaculture: Conflict Resolution and Community Engagement in Belfast
Right now, a small part of eastern Maine is negotiating the future of fish farming and sustainable meat production. The towns of Belfast and Bucksport, just 25 miles apart, are each the proposed home of a giant, land-based aquaculture facility. Combined, these facilities will farm over 25% of the US’s Atlantic Salmon (Schreiber, 2018). While the town of Bucksport has heartily welcomed the industry, some residents of Belfast are organizing against the facility proposed in their town. Their main concerns are damages to the local environment and disturbances that industry at this scale could bring. The stakes of this conflict are high, though that may not be apparent at first glance. In a world increasingly affected by climate change, finding sustainable ways to raise the meat we eat is becoming more and more critical, and aquaculture may have a significant role to play in the future of meat production. This paper will systematically analyze the conflict in Belfast, first outlining the parties involved and their positions, then looking at the psychological mechanisms that have perpetuated and escalated this conflict, and finally proposing recommendations for meaningful resolution. Despite several years of conflict where the company and the residents opposed to the project have been reinforcing enemy images and attributional errors of each other, there is still potential for resolution. If Nordic Aquafarms, the company, emphasizes their shared values of environmentalism and sustainability, and follows the Bucksport facility’s example, they can rebuild trust with the residents and the Belfast community. I will start by providing context for the issue, and then outlining each party’s position and how they are influencing each other.
Currently, aquaculture, the farming of fish, produces more than 50% of the world’s seafood; and that percentage is expected to rise in the coming years (NOAA, n.d.). From a global environmental perspective, this trend may be a good thing. An article in The Guardian from 2016, citing the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, found that 90% of the world’s wild fish stocks were fully fished or overexploited (Nelson, 2016). The same article then poses the growing aquaculture industry as part of the solution to this problem; we can farm our fish rather than continuing to exhaust depleted wild stocks. Not to mention, the global livestock industry creates more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation industry (Carrington, 2014). The industry is also the single largest driver of habitat loss worldwide, which raises global emissions by removing carbon-sequestering vegetation, and 73% of all antibiotics are used in factory farming (Coller, 2019). Aquaculture can solve these issues, but not all aquaculture is equal in impact.
In traditional Atlantic Salmon aquaculture, fish are raised in sea pens, often vast netted areas of the ocean. This means they share the same waters as wild fish, which has many issues. The first is a problem shared by all fishing; because it must be in a body of water, there can be huge economic and environmental transportation costs for getting the fish from the water to people’s plates. In the US these costs are high; we import 95% of Atlantic Salmon from foreign farms (Schreiber, 2018).
Another problem with this traditional approach to aquaculture is the possibility of escape. Today, fewer than 1000 Atlantic Salmon return to US rivers each year (NOAA, n.d.). Farmed fish are bred to grow faster and bigger or are genetically modified (Pollack, 2015), so any escapees could outcompete wild salmon and contaminate the population’s gene pool. In 2017, a single pen with 305,000 fish inside it broke in the Pacific Northwest, releasing up to 185,000 non-native salmon (Flatt, 2017). An escapement of that scale in Maine, where there are native Atlantic Salmon, could wipe out the wild species. Net pens can also be hotspots for disease, prompting either widespread antibiotic use on the fish, which makes its way into the surrounding water and onto our plates, or causing wild fish to catch the disease. Further, fish are given a lot of concentrated feed and then poop in a highly concentrated area. This big influx of nutrients can contribute to algal blooms; when phytoplankton reproduce rapidly because of an excess in nutrients, which causes the oxygen to be sucked out of an area leaving zooplankton and fish to leave or suffocate. The pollution from an average fish farm is equivalent to discharging raw sewage from a town of several thousand people (Jenner, 2010). In short, despite being more sustainable than beef, pork, or poultry, traditional aquaculture comes with a host of environmental concerns.
There is a relatively new kind of aquaculture that claims to address nearly all these issues. This land-based method of farming salmon is called Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). In this method, farmers raise fish in a controlled, indoor environment. This means the fish need little to no antibiotics, there is no chance of escape, and they do not live in coastal waters. On top of this, RAS systems can be implemented anywhere, not just by the ocean, which, if scaled up, would cut down emissions from transporting fish by half (Conservation Fund, 2016). The Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index is an organization that ranks the biggest meat producing companies in the world on nine factors; greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotics, deforestation and biodiversity loss, water scarcity and use, waste and pollution, working conditions, sustainable proteins, animal welfare, and food safety. The organization rates a company called Mowi, a global aquaculture company that uses RAS facilities for much of their fish, as the most sustainable protein producer in the world. Not just that, but three of the top five most sustainable companies are fish farming companies, and aquaculture corporations had the highest overall scores (FAIRR, 2019).
With the host of problems that come with traditional meat production of all kinds compounded with the urgency of climate change, there is a clear need for new sustainable meat and protein. Recirculating Aquaculture Systems may be one solution, an environmentally sustainable method for meat production. Some of the first facilities of this kind being built at an industrial scale in the US are the two facilities in Maine. The company Nordic Aquafarms is building in Belfast, and a company called Whole Oceans is building in Bucksport. Whole Oceans has received virtually no pushback from the community for a host of reasons, partly because it plans to take over a paper mill that closed in 2014, taking with it 579 jobs and 40% of the town value, as well as their community engagement practices according to Susan Lessard, the town manager of Bucksport (S. Lessard, personal communication, Nov. 2019).
In Belfast, however, there is a vocal group of town residents who are steadfastly opposed to the Nordic Aquafarms project. Wastewater has been one point of contention, as the Nordic Aquafarms facility will discharge about 7.7 million gallons of water per day, which would increase outflow into the Penobscot Bay by 90% (Hinckley, 2019). With this outflow comes a concern for eutrophication, the increase of nutrients into the water that can cause harmful algal blooms. The company says that filtration will remove almost all the nutrients from the water before it is discharged, but one projection found that it may still raise nutrient levels in Penobscot Bay 48-135 times higher. The Nordic Aquafarms facility will also use about 400 million gallons of freshwater per year, a huge amount that some think could threaten the town’s supply of fresh water.
Lawrence Reichard, a journalist and resident of Belfast, is one of the most vocal opponents of the facility and has written many pieces in opposition to the project. He has many issues with the facility and has the support of many in the community; residents raised money for him to fly to Norway and Denmark to investigate the Norwegian company. First are the nutrient discharge and the freshwater water usage mentioned above. He also protests because of the need to clear-cut forest to build the facility. Not only this, but part of the facility is being built on delicate wetlands, destroying wildlife habitat including that of the Bobolink bird, a threatened species native to the area. He also says Nordic Aquafarms has a huge lack of transparency and a track record of lying; he found discrepancies with what representatives have said to him and with public statements. Digging into city emails, he found evidence that city officials were trying hard to get the approval needed for the company, despite the pushback from the community. Finally, he said that they have “a tendency to engage in thuggish behavior” (L. Reichard, personal communication, Nov. 2019). On his trip to Denmark and Norway, he wrote a piece against Nordic’s methods, technologies, and practices. He says he was invited to Nordic headquarters in Norway but was then thrown out when he arrived, and he claims that their refutes of the article are lies. After writing that piece he was fired by his publisher, which he claims was due to pressure from Nordic.
Reichard also claims the facility will be disruptive, a huge visual blemish to the town and a noise and light polluter to nearby residents. In response to claims that he and the other residents were practicing ‘Not In My Backyard’ (NIMBY) activism, he said that “I have a right to defend my backyard from pollution. I have no obligation to allow it” (L. Reichard, personal communication, Nov. 2019. This accusation implies that he and the others are raising these environmental issues so that they can get the facility to be built somewhere else, where they would not mind.
Reichard rejects this and cites the need for radical environmental change. He said that we must be doing all we can to decrease both our emissions and consumption, and he feels that industry at this scale comes at too high an environmental cost, even of this kind that is more sustainable than most traditional meat industries. In Reichard’s opinion, measures that are just a step in the right direction environmentally, he would say RAS facilities, are not enough in the face of climate change.
Despite the pushback, Jacki Cassida, the Nordic Aquafarms Community Liaison, says that the opposition has been a vocal minority and that Belfast has been mostly very receptive to the project. She also said that the facility discharge is a normal amount for this sized aquaculture project, saying that big numbers can sound scary but when put in context the amount of discharge from the facility is not outrageous. The outflow will be less than other meat facilities, and the amount of nutrients filtered, and amount discharged, meets or exceeds Nordic Aquafarms’ permits; they recycle 99% of the water they use. Cassida also responded to the clear-cutting concern, pointing out that the land in question was previously farmland, and 80 years ago there were not trees there at all. Since then it has been regularly logged, so it is not virgin forest like some residents claim. She also mentioned that while they are clear cutting some trees, they are also planting some, and donating a chunk of the land back to the town, preserving a local hiking trail. The way Cassida and Nordic see it, any step in the environmental right direction is a good one. She also said that it is important to Nordic to not just grow a product, but to be a positive community and environmental agent. The company is creating programs and relationships with local schools, both elementary and high schools. Cassida said directly that Nordic Aquafarms is interested not just in conforming to their environmental permits, but exceeding them where they can to set a standard of environmental sustainability for the growing industry as more facilities are built in the US (J. Cassida, personal communication, Nov. 2019).
These are the two primary agents in the conflict in Belfast, the company, and the residents. The third agent, a mediator but an agent all the same, is the town government itself. The government seems to be interested in bringing Nordic Aquafarms to Belfast primarily for the economic benefits. The facility will bring many industrial jobs with good wages. In emails between the town and the company, it appears that the town officials are working hard to bring the company to Belfast. The Belfast City Manager, Joe Slocum, wrote in an email to Nordic that “the city, in less than four weeks, received 143 letters and numerous personal pleas calling for the zoning process to slow down…. In the face of this outpouring of concern, the council nevertheless again moved forward, at your request…. I cannot think of a community anywhere that has done so much, in so short a time, to advance a project….” (Reichard, 2018). This evidence shows the city’s support for the project, despite the protests from residents.
Each group has a clear goal. The company wants to build their facility in Belfast to make money and to be leaders in a new and sustainable field of meat production in the US; the city wants the facility built to bring jobs, value, and taxes to the town; the resistant community doesn’t want the facility built because of the environmental and disruption concerns. They each also have different kinds of power to influence the situation. John French and Bertram Raven in their 1959 article lay out several different kinds of powers that stakeholders can have. These are referent power, the social influence people can have over each other; expert power, the power someone holds through being an expert; reward power, the ability to positively reinforce behavior; coercive power, the ability to punish undesired behavior; and legitimate power, being seen by others as having the power to make decisions that affect others.
Each of the three players in this conflict, the company, the town, and the community, holds a different combination of these kinds of power. The company has a lot of money, which can translate into being able to reward the town for supporting it, hiring experts to communicate their brand positively as well as to tout the environmental benefits. They are also connected to a broader economy, as building the facility could give the town greater access to the world market. The community members hold referent power with each other. They can organize the community well because of the relationships they have. Because they live in the community, they are also experts on many local issues. They can also both coerce or reward the city government, primarily through elections, protests, and political pressure. They have, in some ways, been using this power. Many of the articles Reichard has published are scathing critiques of Nordic Aquafarms and the town, which is making it harder for him to negotiate with them going forward. This is coercive power, which when used can undermine other forms of power. Reichard and other residents have seen this, writing articles that attack Nordic has made negotiation and resolution harder. The town is the legitimate authority on the issue, and also has reward power. They hold the power to grant permits, approve the zoning issues, and greenlight the facility. Only they can move the development forward; the other two groups are scrambling to convince them they are right.
In her 1997 article, Donella Meadows outlines nine ways to intervene in a system, and this framework helps to show how the parties are using their power to interact and influence each other. The three players are each testing and pushing some of these intervention points. To start, there has been lots of contention over the numbers: how much water will the facility use, how many trees will they clear. As Meadows writes, focusing on the numbers rarely creates behavior change (Meadows, 1997), and this has been true of this conflict. The residents, the town and the company have gone back and forth with little meaningful ground made by anyone around these numbers. Next, both the residents and the company are trying to catalyze a positive feedback loop with the town government. The town has the power to either move the project forward or to shut it down, and so the other two groups are focusing their attention on convincing them one way or the other. They are working on ways of communicating that will get the town’s attention, by publishing articles or holding meetings. They hope to convince the city to sway one way, which will embolden and legitimize their position, which will help sway the city to their side even more. These were Meadows’ fifth and sixth ways to intervene, through driving positive feedback loops and flows of information (Meadows, 1997).
Finally, the fundamental disagreement that may determine the eventual outcome of this conflict is Meadows’ number two place, the goal of the system. In this instance the focus is the city government and each party, the company, the residents, and even the employees of the town, may disagree on what their goal should be. The company hopes the goal of the town is to bring economic stimulus for the region; new jobs and new industry that will raise the quality of life. The residents hope the town’s goal is to protect their pristine environment from local environmental damage and from noise and light pollution. The town employees’ views of the actual goal are a bit of a mixture of these two, but there is some evidence that suggests they are leaning towards economic stimulus. Even though the conflict is ongoing, and the issue is still being debated on many platforms, Nordic has the upper hand. The city government supports the project, and the permitting process is going forward. The residents have slowed the process down, but currently have not been able to stop it.
But despite Nordic’s advantage, the conflict is worth resolving. Nordic Aquafarms is looking to build a huge, long-standing business in this community, they want to have the support from residents going forward. But before going into recommendations for resolving this issue, I will outline some of the psychological forces playing into this conflict. Most of the focus will be between the company and the residents, since they are most actively and publicly disagreeing. The residents and the company each perceive the other as their enemy and have escalated the conflict over time as each assumes bad intentions from the other. This positive feedback loop has fueled much of the escalation; the enemy image triggers an attribution error which confirms the enemy image. The town government has not engaged in the public discourse, but they do seem to be leaning towards the side of the company.
The resident and company’s perceptions of the other as an enemy is the first and perhaps most relevant psychological phenomenon in this conflict. Colloquially the word enemy can imply violence and war, as in ‘Iraq is the enemy of the US’, or it can imply simple rivalry, as in enemy sports teams. Psychologically, it is a technical term defined as “any group… that is viewed by someone with hostility or as a threat” (Silverstien, 1992). Silverstein goes on in the same article to define the psychology of enemy images, which is “the process wherein people exaggerate the negative or threatening characteristics of… a group” (Silverstein, 1992). The psychological meaning of enemy encapsulates both these aspects, an enemy is not just a hostile group but one we selectively see the hostile aspects of. In this instance I do not mean to describe the relationship between the residents and the company as a violent struggle, nor as simple rivalry; I mean to show that both groups have exaggerated the negative and/or threatening characteristics of the other in order to make it easier to write the other group off as bad and biased.
This enemy creation underlies much of the back and forth between Nordic Aquafarms and the Belfast residents, so examples of this enemy creation will appear among examples that highlight other psychological factors. Let us start by returning to the Silverstein article cited above, and specifically look at what he says about the conditions under which these images develop. He first mentions that “enemy images are particularly likely to develop between groups that are in conflict over scarce resources” (Silverstein, 1992). That is the exact situation in this conflict, they are struggling for scarce resources. The residents feel it most saliently around the planned land for the facility. The company will need to cut trees, discharge water, and create noise and disturbance to nearby residents. Currently it is forested land by the river, and the residents want to keep it that way. Their desire to protect this land has been the source of the conflict, and so made it easy for residents to create an enemy image of the company trying to take it away. It has also made the company create enemy images of the residents who do not want them there.
When Nordic first came in, some of the current opponents were curious but not immediately opposed. Lawrence Reichard says that he was originally excited about the project, saying that “the idea of having Norwegians coming and floating around town, it sounded kind of fun. It sounded innovative” (Hinkley, 2019). It was after the first public meeting for the facility, where Reichard heard some red flags, that he “went home and did some fairly rudimentary research (and) confirmed (his) suspicion that these things weren’t adding up” (L. Reichard, personal communication, Nov. 2019). He then started writing articles, which have ramped up in their attacks on the company over time. Evidence of enemy formation can be found in many. In one article published in June of 2018, Reichard writes that Nordic Aquafarms has strayed “squarely into the realm of outright lies” (Reichard, 2018). He cites a recent public forum where a Nordic expert told the room that none of the species of fish used in fishmeal, what the salmon would be fed, are eaten by humans. Reichard claims in the article that this is not true. The pointed language in the buildup compared to the relative size of the omission (or lie) is evidence of enemy formation. Reichard accused the company of lying outright but cited one comment made in a public meeting about one small aspect of the project. He may very well be right, but the structure of the comment appears to “exaggerate the negative qualities” (Silverstein, 1992) of the company. This exaggeration not only justifies the feelings of hatred Reichard and the residents feel about the company, but also justifies the escalating rhetoric of this conflict.
Reichard continues in the same article and hits the company harder. He transitions from the lie he claims they told to Marianne Naess, the company’s newest hire (at the time) as Director of Operations in North America who will be overseeing public relations for the Belfast Project. He claims that her “resume reads like a “Who’s Who of corporate irresponsibility and outright criminality” (Reichard, 2018), and spends the rest of the article going over each company she has worked for, detailing their corruption. I did not research the claims he made about the companies, they may be true, but for each one he never mentioned what positions Naess had or what her involvement was in any of the scandals. He wants us to associate her, personally, with the scandals he mentions (from the Enron scandal to the opioid crisis). Again, the claims he makes about the companies may be true, but he presented no evidence other than that Naess worked at these companies to suggest she had any part. This again is evidence of enemy formation. He is not talking about the facts of the project; he is finding bad press to discredit Nordic. By using this rhetoric, he connects Nordic to other famously corrupt companies, attempting to skew public opinion which pits the two sides even further against each other.
Nordic has been engaging in personal attack rhetoric also, though perhaps not as extreme. They are an international company, presumably with a team of people who read over their press releases. This might check some of the most extreme and obvious examples of bias, but none the less, they do engage in creating an enemy image of Reichard. In the fall of 2018 Reichard flew to Norway and Denmark to investigate the company and write pieces. He published a particularly damning article in October 2018 on the company. It was an interview with someone he claims is an expert in RAS technology, and this person alleges many problems with the design of the facility, the management of the company, and the legality of the technology. Reichard even has a few sentences suggesting Nordic may illegally employ children who use dangerous chemicals. The company released a response to this article that goes point by point, refuting Reichard’s accusations, but not without first including two paragraphs directed at Reichard himself. They write:
“Lawrence Reichard’s mission from the day Nordic Aquafarms announced its plans to build a land-based fish farm in Belfast, has been to paint a negative picture of the company. Articles with speculative sources of information, misinterpretations and often factually wrong information have been published regularly in The Republican Journal… If he believes himself to be an activist and working for the common interest of the people in Maine, he should at least have the sense of decency to provide those people with facts.” (Nordic Aquafarms, 2018).
These lines are evidence of enemy formation against Reichard. They use categorical language to describe his goal and attack his character rather than only addressing facts. They invoke Reichard’s “sense of decency” as well as his “mission” to paint a negative picture of the company (Nordic Aquafarms, 2018). These claims are personal attacks on Reichard, and they imply bias that because of his mission he is not reporting good facts. This is typical when enemy images are created. To justify the feelings of hatred, we focus on the negative and threatening characteristics and generalize so as to systematically overlook any redeeming qualities. This works in Nordic’s favor to not just dispute the facts Reichard claims, but to call his motive and character into question.
These examples from Reichard and Nordic show another psychological phenomenon at play in this conflict. Both parties make attributional biases of the other, assuming bad intentions. According to an article from 1971, when we view behavior, we attribute the behaviors of others to intrinsic factors and our own behaviors to situational ones (Jones & Nisbett, 1971). This is known as the fundamental attribution error, and is seen clearly in both examples. When Reichard fact checked the expert from the panel, instead of assuming they had just had a slip of the tongue, or momentarily forgot the answer, he claims that the company was outright lying. Similarly when the company responded to Reichard’s article from Denmark, they wrote about Reichard’s personal “mission from the day Nordic” (Nordic Aquafarms, 2018) arrived to discredit and slander them and do not give any thought to the possibility he was just misinformed of the credibility of his interviewee. Both of these assumptions could be attributional errors. But this conflict has been ongoing for a few years now, and so it wouldn’t acknowledge the escalation that has happened to paint these attributions as one-time assumptions of the other party’s intent. It is not simply that Reichard went to this one town meeting a few months after the facility was proposed and assumed this expert was out to deceive the town. That is where the interaction of enemy formation and attributional biases lie. Both parties have been forming enemy images of the other, so when new publications or statements are released, they are primed to attribute the worst intentions to them. It is a pattern of turning the other into the enemy, and then attributing their actions as targeted and unfair, which then confirms that they are enemies. This is a positive feedback loop that has escalated over time.
This escalation can be seen even by these examples I have mentioned; accusing a company of lying is much less severe than accusing them of being mismanaged, incompetent and perhaps in violation of child labor laws. Bias plays a similar, but not identical, role to enemy formation in this escalation. Whereas when we perceive another party as the enemy, we may feel hatred and disagreement which fuels a conflict, when we perceive bias it lessens how effective we think negotiating can be and so also fuels a conflict. The authors of a paper on bias and conflict escalation write that we perceive those we disagree with as biased, and when we think a party is biased we often escalate the conflict and are less likely to try negotiating (Kennedy & Pronin, 2008). As I have written, both parties see the other as biased against them, not just as bad actors but having a personal agenda that stops them from acting according to the truth as the other sees it. According to Kennedy & Pronin this would lead them to negotiate less, because they each see the other as unable or unwilling to find compromise, which is exactly what we have been seeing. The publications have become more unequivocal and diplomatic, and the attacks have become more personal, particularly from the residents towards the company.
A side effect of bias and enemy formation is the feeling of victimization. When we feel like another party has an ulterior motive, we are more likely to feel used and targeted by their actions. When we feel victimized, we highlight our victimization as being unfair and hurtful while downplaying our perpetration as minimal (Baumeister, 1990). In these examples we see evidence that both parties feel victimized by the other. The company said that Reichard was on a mission to paint a negative picture of them in their response to his article. This is the language of victimization, they write that Reichard is targeting them. Nowhere do they acknowledge the perpetration that Reichard feels from them. This emphasizes their victimization from him without acknowledging any perpetration. Similarly, Reichard said very clearly in an interview that he felt that Nordic was personally attacking him. He was fired soon after publishing the pieces from Denmark and claims that Nordic “thuggishly” pressured his publisher to fire him because they did not like what he had published (L. Reichard, personal communication, Nov. 2019). I have not seen evidence in my research that Nordic had a role in Reichard being fired. It may be true, but either way Reichard sees himself as the victim and does not consider his article to be a personal attack on Nordic. Regardless of the truth, he highlights his victimization while downplaying his perpetration, as Baumeister describes.
As this conflict has escalated into personal attacks, enemy formation, perceived bias, and attributional errors, it is worth returning to each group’s stated position. When conflicts intensify as this one has, each party may exaggerate how much their rivals disagree with their position (Chambers & Melnyk, 2006). This is certainly true between Nordic and the residents. Numerous public statements from both sides assert that they are advocating for the environment. In interviews I conducted, both Lawrence Reichard and Jacki Cassida, the Nordic Aquafarms Community Liaison, emphasized several times that they were involved in this issue first and foremost for the environment. They may have different ideas for what is best for the environment, but it seems that they perceive their positions to be quite different, when they claim to be mostly aligned. In the midst of this conflict, a reminder of the many shared values between these sides may help to ease tensions and find common ground going forward.
Throughout this conflict, the town leaders are staying as far away from the back and forth as they can. The local leaders’ silence may be a tactical choice, to support the project without dramatically alienating the residents who do oppose it. This way they can approve the permits as they see fit and stay out of the aggressive rhetoric being used between the residents opposed and the company. Almost no public statements have been made, they are going along with the permitting process and trying not to engage with the discourse surrounding the project. This silence is conspicuous. A democratic government’s stated duty is to its residents, and so the fact that the Belfast government is not backing up this vocal opposition reveals that they are in favor of the project. One reason this may be is that while a vocal group of residents oppose the project, there is evidence that a majority support the project. In November of 2019 three candidates ran for Belfast city council on an anti-Nordic platform, and all three lost. This may have been perceived by the city as a call to support the project from most residents and be used as reason to support and justification for any previous support.
As intense as this conflict has become, there are still avenues for resolution. Even though the project seems to be moving along without agreement from the residents discussed here, Nordic Aquafarms should have an interest in easing tension as much as possible. They have entered this community and hope to grow a huge business based on sustainability. Sustainability is important environmentally, but people also care about sustainable and ethical business practices and will want to see the company as an active and supportive community member. Because Nordic has the most power in this situation, as the facility is being built, they need to be the ones to initiate conflict resolutions and de-escalations. The city can assist with this initiative, working with Nordic as a third party to help them communicate better with residents. To resolve this conflict, Nordic should focus on increasing community trust, and ‘enlarging the pie’ or finding new solutions to the residents’ concerns. Specifically, Nordic should focus on the perception the residents have of how they make decisions, demonstrating that the company is hearing and responding to the concerns, and they should think about ways they can invest in other conservation efforts to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability. The company Whole Oceans, who is building a near identical facility 25 miles away, serves as a case study that Nordic can learn from. I will start by going over the role the city can play in preparing for resolution, and then go into specific resolution recommendations to meet discreet concerns and repair relationships going forward.
One possible option to begin conflict resolution generally is to include a third-party mediator. If this happened here, the town government would be in the best position to play the role of the mediator. They are clearly interested in having the company build the facility, and they also have a duty to the residents of Belfast. The first obvious point to bring up is that the city has shown that it is interested in building the facility. This may work to undermine the trust of the residents in the process and deter them from participating in negotiations. On the other hand, this may actually be an advantage. Zartman & Touval (1985) argue for some amount of bias in a third party, saying that it may encourage one party to participate if it thinks the third party can “deliver” the other (influence the other to give a favorable deal), and it can make the third party invested in the outcome of the negotiations. While this might work, there are two reasons I do not think this kind of direct third-party mediation is the best course of action for this conflict. The first is the rigidity with which the residents are thinking currently. They are currently focused on stopping the facility being built altogether, they are defending a ‘position’. In their book “Getting to Yes”, authors Fisher and Ury warn against bargaining with positions. They write that positions are most often too black and white, and do not leave any room for compromise. Instead negotiations should be focused on ‘interests’, the reasons behind a position (Fisher & Ury, 1991). This is an important concept that I will return to, but with this stated position being so rigid I’m not sure the effect Zartman and Touval described, where the bias works to promote resolution, will work in this instance. The residents do not see compromise as possible yet, and will not trust the town to actually help them. The second reason I do not think the town mediating between the residents and company would work is that there is not a strong leadership or organizational structure between the residents. The question of who would represent their interests and who has authority to accept or reject different offers is not clear and could cause conflict in and of itself.
But there is another way the town could play a constructive third-party role. They could use a strategy coined problem solving for one, where the city acts as an advisor for Noridc (Tidwell, 1998). Both the company and the residents are entrenched in the conflict and trying to defend their side. But Nordic has an organized team of people who can bounce ideas off each other, and they are building their facility. In other words, they have more power than the residents do, and so may be more willing to engage in conflict resolution efforts, if only because they feel that they have already won. Because of this, the city’s role could be as a consultant to Nordic, to help them figure out a strategy of how to approach resolution as well as future communication. They could bring the residents’ perspectives to Nordic, help them brainstorm some of the underlying interests behind their stated position, and help them identify communication strategies going forward that will be less likely to be misinterpreted, and might have a chance to actually transform the conflict. It would help the city’s goal of getting the facility built smoother and faster and bring the residents’ perspectives to the conversations in the company, so serving their constituents. This should be done before engaging the residents directly, so that those communications start off as best they can.
This conflict has been going on so long that there is now general distrust and animosity surrounding the company. At this point, because of the strong enemy images and fundamental attribution errors that the residents and company have for each other, there will need to be some relationship repairing done before resolution is effective. If Nordic proposed concrete solutions right now, it is possible that the residents would attribute it as being fully self-serving and a move to get them out of the way rather than a genuine conflict resolution gesture. If Nordic can build some trust with the residents, these moves will be seen as much more genuine and have a much better chance of resolving the situation. There is a case study just twenty-five miles away featuring an aquaculture company building trust with their community that Nordic can learn from.
Whole Oceans is building a huge Recirculating Aquaculture Systems facility in the town of Bucksport, just down the road from Belfast. They are in a similar location, are building a similar facility of a similar size (even bigger, actually) but have been welcomed wholeheartedly by their community. There are a few reasons for this difference in reception but a prominent one is how much time Whole Oceans spent building trust in the community (Arfa, 2020). Whole Oceans started conversations about the facility two years before they applied for permits or bought their property, and in that time listened to the community and adjusted their plans to become good partners. They had a representative from the company in the local coffee shop every Thursday from 10:00am to noon for about six months, to talk to people about the project and get to know the community. They met with many different groups, like the town government, community organizations, and local indigenous groups as well. In their first few months they had one or two complaints about the project, so they invited the complainers to meet with them personally and answered any questions they had and could walk them through the plans in person. They also sponsored full community events, like an annual 5k running race that happens in Bucksport. These actions by the company showed their commitment and dedication to the town. They built trust between the community and the company both because the community could get to know the people building the facility, which humanized them, but also because they were clear to pay attention to procedural justice as decisions were being made. Whole Oceans can serve as a model for community engagement, and while Nordic does not need to copy them exactly, they can draw inspiration from these practices when figuring out how to build trust with the Belfast residents.
Procedural justice refers to how fairly the process behind decision making is. Intuitively, research shows that perceptions of procedural justice, how fairly a decision is perceived to be made, is as important as the actual outcome in many cases (Tyler & Belliveau, 1995). This was cited as one of the more general grievances Reichard and others have with Nordic. It seems to them that Nordic is not actually listening to feedback and willing to change anything based on what the residents say. Whole Oceans, on the other hand, by investing so much in the community before building their business, and spending so much time and attention listening to the community and their feedback before the project was fully designed (so feedback could be listened to) built a lot of trust in their company and their decision making. This can be a roadmap for some of the ways Nordic can build up this kind of trust in Belfast, or at least repair some of the conflict caused by the lack of trust.
Nordic’s approach does not need to be identical to Whole Oceans’, especially because they are coming to this process at a later stage in their development and planning. They will need a way to signal to the residents that they are genuinely interested in listening, not just going through the motions. Nordic has held many town hall meetings and has attempted to do this in ways that might have worked if there had been initial trust. But they have made it seem to the residents that Nordic is doing this just to appear like they are hearing feedback, not to actually listen. So clearly something that sends a stronger signal needs to be tried. My suggestion would be that Nordic pause their permitting process for one month. Tell the town that because of the pushback they have received they are going to pause the permitting process and take this month to meet with residents and try to find some resolution options. In this month, they follow Whole Oceans’ example: like have someone in a local gathering place to answer questions and talk to community members. Depending on when something like this might happen, it may have to be virtual office hours if public gatherings are still unsafe because of Covid-19. They should meet with community groups, local businesses, individuals, and indigenous groups, and invite people to give their feedback on the project in person and hear their concerns. This time can also be used by Nordic to ask about other ways Nordic can help and invest in the Belfast community. End the month by thanking the town for their feedback by sponsoring a community event, and by making demonstrable change based on the feedback they received and/or announcing the alternative conservation projects chosen from the conversations. Acts like these will build trust, and if Nordic can really pause their process and show that hearing feedback is important to them, then residents may feel heard, and feel like they are being heard going forward. These things will help to resolve this conflict and build trust between residents and the company.
Now ideally this would be an easy, low/no cost plan for Nordic. But it may seem too unreasonable or too costly to halt their process. There is almost certainly a carefully planned timeline and budget around this project that depends on investors, and so it might not be easy to alter that plan. It may still be effective without a full halt on their operations, so it would still be worth doing. It would mean that Nordic would have to find other visible ways to demonstrate that they are listening to the concerns and are willing to make even small changes to better fit the community. I am also writing this paper in the spring of 2020, where the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of life. For Nordic, this might make it a lot easier to do something like this, to change their operations to resolve this conflict. On the other hand, social distancing requirements and stay at home orders will make much of the gathering suggested impossible. I reached out to Nordic, asking about the effects of Covid-19 on their operations, but received no reply, so I cannot say here what their response to the pandemic has been. Assuming the company is still planning to continue development on schedule, adaptive modifications will need to be made to community engagement efforts if this happens during the pandemic. Perhaps hosting online meetings instead of in person ones, donating to local food banks, hospitals, or small businesses instead of sponsoring a running race. They could also put on a virtual concert or art show for the community. These are adaptations that can be made to fit this time and to still stay connected to the community.
Once Nordic has done this community trust building, they could address some of the residents’ discreet concerns about the facility. The main concerns of the residents, as stated by Reichard, are environmental, including the clear-cutting of forest, the nutrient discharge in their water and amount of water usage (L. Reichard, personal communication, Nov. 2019). I mentioned above the need to focus on interests rather than positions (Fisher & Ury, 1991). This is exactly where Nordic should get away from engaging with positions. The residents’ positions are all about the specifics of the project, cutting this many trees, or using this much water. These numbers may have a little bit of flexibility, but for the most part if the facility is built, that is how it will be. Practically, then, each side is advocating simply for or against the facility, which is exactly what has been happening and how the conflict has escalated. But the stated interests of the residents, their underlying concerns, are about the environment. My interview with Nordic, along with their own statements, support and agree with these interests (J. Cassida, personal communication, Nov. 2019). This presents Nordic with an excellent opportunity.
Going forward, they need to “enlarge the pie”, or think creatively to meet both parties’ underlying interests (Baron, Bazerman, & Shonk, 2006). It is especially easy to do this in this scenario because they have overlapping interests. Both parties are committed to sustainability. The company should move the dialogue away from the entrenching build it vs do not build it debate and invite the residents to propose other conservation issues and solutions they care about. Nordic may be able to use their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) office, a companies’ office in charge of charitable giving, to invest in other local conservation efforts. They could pledge to protect the same amount of land (or more) that they are using to build the facility. They could sponsor watershed cleanups and protections. They could use their connections and favor with the town government, or even the state government, to pass conservation legislation. They could offer programs and education for other businesses in town to heighten their level of sustainability. I do not know enough to say how realistic each of these ideas are, or which would have the best chance of having a high impact, but I do know that this is only a small sample of possible solutions. The way to determine what will be most effective is to ask the residents. Take the month of community engagement to ask what conservation projects are important to residents, and that can be part of how the month ends; the unveiling of a new investment Nordic makes in the community. The same approach can be taken to meeting other concerns, like noise and light disruption. Nordic can find other areas to support the interests in quiet and seclusion that drive those positions. Nordic has a chance to invest in the community, show their commitment to sustainability, and show the residents that their interests are not actually different from the companies. They can transform the debate around their facility into a collaboration surrounding what community conservation projects are most important to the residents of Belfast. This approach makes salient the superordinate goals of these groups, the goals that they both share (Cohen & Insko, 2008). By doing this, Nordic is re-framing themselves as an ally of the residents rather than as their enemy.
Though there is intense conflict between Nordic Aquafarms and some residents of Belfast, there is still hope for resolution. Perhaps not everyone will come into agreement, but my research has shown that there are strong shared interests between these two groups. They are disagreeing about implementation, not about conviction. This is a chance for Nordic to demonstrate their values to Belfast and to the world, and a chance for Belfast residents to have their conservation concerns heard and to gain a powerful ally for environmentalism. My recommendations together will hopefully resolve this conflict, but the suggestions are only a small sample of what could be done. If the spirit of the recommendations rings true but the specifics seem impractical, there are still many avenues forward. It will take honesty and direct communication, but if Nordic leads the way with generosity and compassion, they can make real change in the Belfast community, both in perception and in actual victories for conservation.
The fight against climate change will be shaped by the actions we take in the coming decades. Meat production has an immense carbon and environmental footprint, but the demand for meat and need for protein is not changing. We need to face this challenge with innovative solutions, where people can be fed for a fraction of the impact. RAS technology is one way forward, and these small Maine towns are leading the way in the US. But it is not enough to have good technology – these solutions need to be integrated into communities to be sustainable over the long term. This conflict in Belfast is a first-hand example. All eyes will be on Maine in the coming years to see how both Nordic Aquafarms and Whole Oceans are kick-starting RAS facilities in the US. By navigating community interests and transforming the psychological mechanisms that were escalating the conflict, Nordic Aquafarms would not only resolve this conflict and become a deep part of the Belfast community, it would become a global model for environmental and community sustainability.
 This article says 17% combined but since published Whole Oceans has doubled their proposed capacity, bringing it closer to 27%
 This article does not include fish as livestock
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