Innovation part of Maine aquaculture growth

When you think about Maine aquaculture, you probably think about salmon, shellfish or seaweed. Interest in these species certainly continues to grow, but that’s not the whole story. Among Maine aquaculturists there are a few innovators, individuals who are approaching things just a little differently.
At the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, director Steve Eddy oversees a medley of projects. The Center was founded in 1999 by the University of Maine as an aquaculture research and development facility to address industry needs at industry scale. The Center sits on 22 acres on Taunton Bay and comprises over 100,000 square feet of aquaculture research and development facilities housed in a variety of buildings. The Center includes the Maine Aquaculture Technology Lab, featuring two 365,000-gallon tanks that are available to house fledgling projects. “We’ve worked on cultivation of sea urchins, polychaete worms, halibut, and now a lumpfish program [a fish that cleans sea lice from salmon in pens]. People have crazy schemes and we give them a platform and help any way we can,” he said. “We help with finding funding and to carry out projects in response to industry needs.”

Sara Rademaker’s company, American Unagi, plans to break ground in 2020 on a new facility in Waldoboro. Photo courtesy of American Unagi.

Among the companies housed at the Center is American Unagi. Started by Sara Rademaker, American Unagi (unagi is the Japanese word for eel) grows Maine elvers, also called glass eels, to commercial size. Several years ago, while working at the Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde, Rademaker began pondering the question of why elvers were always shipped out of state to China and other countries to be raised to market size. If someone could figure out how to do the same thing in Maine, she thought, the value of the eels would remain in the state.
In 2014, she applied for and got a permit from the Department of Marine Resources to purchase 100 elvers. She put the tiny eels in a tank in her Thomaston basement and proceeded to tinker. Eels have been grown to maturity for decades in Europe and Asia, so Rademaker had some research to draw on. The key to the enterprise was developing the right food for the small creatures.
She then took her eels to the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center Aquaculture Business Incubator in order to scale up to a commercial business. By 2018 Rademaker was ready to move her company to the facility in Franklin to begin the two-year process of growing 60,000 elvers to market size. Next year she will open a 27,000-square-foot facility in Waldoboro, where she and her increasing number of employees will continue to expand their product capacity.
The University of Maine also figured largely in the growth of Sea & Reef Aquaculture, a company that raises tropical fish for aquarium enthusiasts. Soren Hansen started the company with a partner, Chad Callan, when both were graduate students at the University. In 2003, the two set up shop at the Aquaculture Research Center in Orono. By 2010, Callan had left the company to grow tropical fish in a milder climate, Hawaii. Hansen then moved the company to the Center in Franklin.
Sea & Reef Aquaculture came into existence at a good time. Interest in tropical fish jumped dramatically after the success of Disney’s movie “Finding Nemo” in 2004, particularly interest in tomato clownfish. Hansen started breeding clownfish for specific variations in color. The company developed and grew such unique varieties as Maine Blizzard Clownfish, Maine Mocha Clownfish, Phantom Clownfish, DaVinci Clownfish and Black DaVinci Clownfish. Hansen’s was also the first aquaculture company to successfully grow a much-sought-after tropical fish, the Lightning Maroon Clownfish, on a commercial scale. Lightning Maroon Clownfish have a retail price of between $200 and $300 per fish.

Sea & Reef Aquaculture benefited from the popularity of the movie “Finding Nemo,” which featured a tropical clownfish. Photo courtesy of Sea & Reef Aquaculture.

A new species is now under cultivation at the Center, the California yellowtail amberjack (Seriola lalandi). “The Japanese have been fattening juveniles caught in the wild for years. They are used for sushi,” director Eddy explained. Hatchery technology to grow juveniles from eggs was developed a decade or more ago but ensuring the young had the diet they required proved challenging. “We can produce the juveniles here. But they have an extended period of needing live feed so we must provide rotifers and then plankton for them. It’s a long time before they go to processed feed,” he said.
Eddy has been at the Center since 2000 and has seen aquaculture ventures come and go. Commercialization of farm-raised halibut and cod, once hailed as promising species, fizzled. The 2008 recession brought a sharp drop in new projects. “But in the last five years there’s been lots of interest, lots of enthusiasm,” he said. Eddy remains optimistic. “The sector is growing and definitely there’s innovation in species and technology,” he said.