Aquaculture is big news in Maine. Newspaper stories proclaim, “The future looks bright for Maine’s growing aquaculture industry.” Fresh-faced entrepreneurs smile for the cameras in their foul weather gear in front of their cages or hold up long strands of kelp. To many, the growth of aquaculture businesses appears to have come out of nowhere, a tidal wave surging along the coast of Maine.
The reality is quite different. Maine has been in the forefront of aquaculture ventures, primarily of shellfish, for decades. The University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole was a hotbed of fledgling shellfish farmers in the 1970s, led Dr. Herb Hidu. Hidu was hired to establish a shellfish aquaculture program funded by Maine Sea Grant. He was as a pioneer in shellfish aquaculture and his stature served as a magnet for graduate students interested in the burgeoning field. Those students then went on to establish oyster and blue mussel farms in the nearby Damariscotta River.
Salmon aquaculture was also an early entry into the state’s aquaculture scene. Swan’s Island had an Atlantic salmon farm and processing plant started in the late 1980s. Mariculture Products, later renamed Island Aquaculture, operated under local control until it was purchased by a Norwegian company in 2000 and subsequently closed in 2003. New Brunswick-based Cooke Aquaculture took over three smaller Maine salmon aquaculture businesses in the late 1990s and currently farms in Eastport, Machias and Bar Harbor.
But it was only when the Maine Legislature instituted a new type of aquaculture license in 2006, called a Limited Purpose Aquaculture license (LPA), that the industry took a leap forward, according to Chris Davis, director of the Aquaculture Innovation Center (AIC) at the Darling Marine Center.
The AIC is the only center remaining of three innovation centers created by the state Legislature in 1988 to foster development of specific business sectors (the other two were biotechnology and forestry). The AIC focuses on research that aquaculturists need to select the appropriate species and locations for their businesses in Maine. “The LPA provision came in about ten years ago now and makes it much easier to identify initial sites. It’s a way for a person to get a foot in the water,” Davis said.
Prior to the introduction of LPAs, an individual could apply only for an experimental lease or a standard lease, both of which required extensive investments of time, money and paperwork. In contrast, LPA licenses apply to small tracts of submerged land, just 400 square feet in size, for one year. According to the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), which oversees the aquaculture approval process, each license is specific to certain gear and certain species and thus can be approved without the more extensive review that is required for experimental or standard leases. Gaining an LPA license requires attending a mandatory DMR meeting on topics such as biosecurity, animal health and public health risks associated with aquaculture activities.
Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, concedes that the aquaculture sector has grown in recent years, but not at an alarming rate, in his opinion. “If you look at the data, we have increased by 200 acres in the last twenty years,” he said. “It’s not as big a growth spurt as many believe.” He does agree that LPA leases have made entry into the aquaculture world easier for individuals. “The LPA process lowered the barrier for working waterfront families who were interested in diversifying their income,” he said. “It’s a non-confrontational process designed to allow people to test a site at a small scale. If it’s a bad spot they can change before they go through the long process for a permanent lease.”
An additional impetus for the growth of aquaculture ventures in the state has come from a program created by a collaboration of public and private entities. Called “Aquaculture in Shared Waters,” the Maine Sea Grant program helps fishermen or those from fishing communities learn how to start an aquaculture business. Funding comes from the National Sea Grant Program and takes place in cooperation the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine Aquaculture Association, Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, Coastal Enterprises Inc., and the Island Institute in Rockland.
Dana Morse, Maine Sea Grant extension agent based at the Darling Center, has been involved in the program from its inception in 2013. “Aquaculture is growing internationally, nationally and regionally,” Morse said. “It’s an opportunity for fishing families to diversify their income. [Aquaculture in Shared Waters] is a dedicated training program that delivers technical information to people interested in aquaculture.” More than 150 individuals have attended the 11-week program since 2013, studying everything from site selection, equipment, permitting and regulation to environmental monitoring, business planning, and financial management. “Fifty or so have started new businesses or augmented an existing business as a result of the training,” he said.
Morse sees the uptick in aquaculture ventures in Maine as the product of a happy confluence of forces, not the result of one driving factor. “Globally aquaculture is going up and Maine is known for its high-quality products like oysters and macroalgae. Also there’s a strong interest in good food tied to place. Overlay that with chefs doing cool things with seafood and it all comes together — you have something with energy. Maine is definitely on the radar screen for people interested in shellfish, seaweed, even salmon farms on land,” he said.
Davis noted that the Aquaculture Top Gun contests, begun in 2018, have generated even more attention on Maine aquaculture. The collaborative effort, led by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs (MCE) in partnership with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Maine Aquaculture Association, and FocusMaine and sponsored by the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, features fledgling aquaculturists making five-minute pitches about their businesses to a panel of business experts. The two winners each year received $5,000 each to expedite their company’s growth. “Most have been interested in oyster aquaculture,” Davis said. “There’s a tremendous market now and the Maine brand is strong.”
But oysters are only one of many marine species cultivated in Maine’s waters. “Maine aquaculture has distinguished itself over the years by its diversity of species,” Belle noted. “We tend to grow more species at any one time, which is good. If you grow lots of things, if any one species does poorly you have another to move to.” During the past 28 years he has seen the aquaculture industry in Maine shift to one increasingly composed of people from commercial fisheries as well as newcomers to the state. But he worries that changing demographics may put the brakes on the sector’s growth.
“You see it marching up the coast. Maine is one of the most popular states to retire to. Increasingly the majority living in a coastal community didn’t grow up on the coast. They don’t think of the ocean as a place to make a living,” he said.
“I think we will continue to see a diversification of species, people and places related to aquaculture,” Morse said. There are still a lot of good places to grow things on the coast.”
Who’s Who in Maine’s Aquaculture World
Founded in 1976, the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA) is a membership organization for aquaculturists. Its members grow finfish, shellfish and sea vegetables in both fresh and saltwater using a variety of farming methods. The MAA and its member growers are widely recognized as pioneers in the development of innovative and sustainable farming aquaculture farming practices. Through a 14-point set of environmental guiding principles, cooperative area management agreements, continuous member improvement training and third party audited best management practices MAA and its members are developing environmentally sustainable aquaculture for Maine and beyond.
The Center was established in 1988 by the Maine Legislature with a mission to assist in developing economically and environmentally sustainable aquaculture opportunities in Maine. MAIC sponsors and facilitates innovative research and development projects involving food, pharmaceuticals, and other products from sustainable aquatic systems; invests in the enhancement of aquaculture capacity in Maine; serves as a source of educational information to enhance public visibility and acceptance of aquaculture; and encourages strategic alliances tasked with promoting research, technology transfer, and the commercialization of aquaculture research.
The MAIC operates the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) at the Darling Marine Center, which makes available aquaculture facilities to companies looking to diversify or test new ideas and to those in initial start-up phases. It also oversees the Aquaculture Business Incubator at the Darling Center, which features two 550 square foot lab/culture spaces adjacent to the Flowing Seawater Laboratory. Furthermore, office spaces and a 700 square foot dry laboratory are available in the Marine Culture Laboratory.
The Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI), established in 2009, brings together researchers and faculty from multiple disciplines at UMaine, key industry partners, and applied R&D opportunities, to enable UMaine’s aquaculture research portfolio to embrace the entire innovation development pipeline.