As Washington shuts down net-pen salmon farms, a Norwegian entrepreneur is building a massive onshore salmon farming operation — in tropical Florida. “It is pretty crazy,” the serial salmon entrepreneur says.

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What was once a sprawling tomato field near the Miami suburb of Homestead is being turned over in stages for a new crop: Atlantic salmon.

Yes, you read that right. Salmon, fresh from Florida, the land of palm trees and gators.

Turns out the cold-water, protein-rich fish are well-suited for an innovative approach to salmon farming in the tropics, and southern Florida offers the ideal geological structure for this endeavor in aquaculture: the world’s largest land-raised salmon farm.

“Up to now, what has been holding up salmon from growing and feeding the world is that it has been stuck at the ends of the Earth and has to be flown around. We’re changing that,” said José Prado, chief financial officer of Atlantic Sapphire, the Norwegian company that is constructing a $130 million, 380,000-square-foot facility to hatch, grow and process salmon — all on land. “We call it world-class local.”

That’s just the first phase, and construction is well underway along streets lined with farms and nurseries not far from the Homestead General Aviation Airport. On the first 20 acres, wells for freshwater and saltwater and an injection well for treated wastewater have been drilled.

The beginnings of what will be more than 60 miles of pipes are being laid, while more than 100 trucks filled with crushed rock arrive on the site daily for construction of the facility that will house a freshwater salmon hatchery, 36 massive recirculating saltwater grow-out tanks chilled to about 59 degrees, administrative offices and a processing unit that will prepare the salmon fillets for market.

The first salmon eggs are set to go into the freshwater hatchery in November, while construction is completed for the massive recirculating saltwater tank area, where salmon — one of the few species that migrates from freshwater to saltwater — will be grown to about 10 pounds. It will take about 22 months from the egg stage, and the company said no hormones, antibiotics or pesticides will be used.

Once the project’s 380,000-square-foot facility is complete in 2019, phase 2 will begin on the second 20 acres purchased in 2016. Atlantic Sapphire has an option to buy the contiguous 40 acres — on which papayas are now grown — that’s planned for phase 3.

For all three phases, estimated to come online by 2027, Atlantic Sapphire is predicting an annual output of about 90,000 metric tons, about 10 percent of the U.S. market. Put another way: That’s about 360 million meals produced every year.

Aerial views of the Atlantic Sapphire site in Southern Floria, where a $130 million, 380,000-square-foot facility is being built to hatch, grow and process salmon — all on land.  (Photo courtesy of Atlantic Sapph/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com)
Aerial views of the Atlantic Sapphire site in Southern Floria, where a $130 million, 380,000-square-foot facility is being built to hatch, grow and process salmon — all on land. (Photo courtesy of Atlantic Sapph/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com)

Salmon farming has been growing to meet the demand accelerated by world population gains and more healthful eating trends in the U.S. But 100 percent land-raised salmon is a relatively new innovation and hasn’t been done at this scale.

Typically, farm-raised salmon are hatched in hatcheries on land, and the tiny fish are then transported to large net pens in the chilly ocean off Norway, Chile, the North Atlantic or elsewhere. Then the full-size fish are transported back to land for processing and flown to customers around the world.

That’s a lot of transportation piling onto the carbon footprint, and the net farms also have their own challenges. In the ocean nets, these fish are magnets for sea lice, which can leave them more susceptible to diseases, and they escape.

In Washington state last year, 160,000 nonnative salmon escaped into Puget Sound, presenting an environmental hazard to wild stocks. In response, the state terminated two leases by the company operating that net pen, and the Washington Legislature this month voted to phase out Atlantic salmon net-pen farming by 2025.

Atlantic Sapphire’s “Bluehouse” aquaculture technology addresses all of this, the company said.

“What Atlantic Sapphire represents is the next level of sustainability,” said Atlantic Sapphire CEO and serial salmon entrepreneur Johan Andreassen, during an interview and tour at the Homestead site. “We have zero impact on fish, zero impact on the ocean; we are cutting the carbon footprints, and the end result is that the consumer can buy a product that is very healthy for the consumer and appealing because it doesn’t harm the environment.”

Four years ago, the massive U.S. facility was just an idea. Andreassen and his team began scouting locations, starting in Maine. But the water structure wasn’t optimal — nor was it right along Long Island Sound or Chesapeake Bay. So the team made its way south.

The aquifer structure of southern Florida is believed to be the only area in the U.S. suitable to do this type of aquaculture farm at this scale, Andreassen said. That’s because the geology allows for ample freshwater and saltwater, and the separate safe disposal of treated wastewater via a 2,750-foot-deep injection well, he said.

“This was the last place I looked at because I was thinking south Florida, like the tropics, for a cold-water fish? It is pretty crazy,” he said.

But this crazy entrepreneur is a lifelong innovator in the salmon industry.

Andreassen has been an entrepreneur since he was a teenager. Before founding Atlantic Sapphire, he and his co-founder pioneered the use of cleaner fish in Norway in the 1990s as a natural way of fighting sea lice in net-pen salmon farming.

They launched an organic salmon net-pan farming company, Villa Organic, in Norway, the world’s largest salmon producer, and soon after secured a coveted contract from Whole Foods. They took Villa Organic public in 2007 and later sold it to the second- and third-largest industry players in salmon in Norway; today it is a billion-dollar company. That has allowed Andreassen to do it all again.

In Denmark, known for its water and filtration-technology prowess, Atlantic Sapphire built a recirculating aquaculture facility to produce 1,000 tons annually; it has farmed 25 batches of salmon to date.

“Each time, you learn something new,” Prado said.

The company is expanding it so it can produce about 3,000 tons, but that pales compared with the 90,000-ton project planned for South Dade.

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Yet that Danish facility, the company’s innovation center launched in 2011, is already supplying some top restaurants, and the company has won awards for fish size and flavor. It has also received the highest rating — “Best Choice” — from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

“To produce the fish at 4 to 5 kilograms, 10-12 pounders, with perfect flavor — we are the world champions. Everyone is trying to achieve that,” Prado said.

According to a Florida economic-consulting firm, The Washington Economics Group, the company plans a total capital investment of about $585 million.

The finished project will support 80 to 100 local jobs, including engineers, geologists, biologists, veterinarians and the workers that feed, move and process the salmon, Prado said.

While there are entrepreneurial efforts into land-raised salmon farming, no one has achieved it at scale. Atlantic Sapphire’s plan for Homestead is the largest-known project for land-raised salmon, DNB Markets Equity Research has found.

Another Norwegian company, Nordic Aquafarms, recently announced plans for a U.S. farm in Maine, but it would have a third of the projected production of Atlantic Sapphire. Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company, is the leading producer of farmed salmon, but it primarily uses net technology.

Chief Financial Officer of Atlantic Sapphire, Jos Prado, points out a structure at the Southern Florida site where the company is constructing a $130 million, 380,000-square-foot facility to hatch, grow and process salmon — all on land.  (Jose A. Iglesias/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com)
Chief Financial Officer of Atlantic Sapphire, Jos Prado, points out a structure at the Southern Florida site where the company is constructing a $130 million, 380,000-square-foot facility to hatch, grow and process salmon — all on land. (Jose A. Iglesias/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com)