Oysters fresh out of the Damariscotta River (Photo: Pemaquid Oyster Company)
Oysters fresh out of the Damariscotta River (Photo: Pemaquid Oyster Company)
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While the rest of the country showed flabby business growth during the post-recession years, Maine fish and seafood farmers put on some muscle. Maine's sea farms continued to expand, with an average 8 percent annual growth for the industry over the past decade, even while the aquaculture industry as a whole flattened out nationwide, according to Sabastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA), the oldest state sea farmers association in the country. Belle spoke at the three-day Northeast Aquaculture Conference and Exposition in Portland in mid-January.

And we aren't just talking salmon feed.

Today, Maine produces more farm-raised fish, seafood, and sea vegetables than any other state, with aquaculture businesses pumping $100 million a year into the state economy, according to the MAA. The variety of products and farms keeps growing, from kelp to oysters, bait fish to halibut, and trout to tropical aquarium fish. Half the farm-raised salmon sold in the country comes from Maine sea farms, who are using aquaculture farming methods far different, much cleaner, and with intensive regulatory oversight compared to a generation ago, said Belle.

In the early days of salmon farming, the heavy overfeeding of farmed salmon in pens not ideally located for water flow resulted in localized waste problems. That localized fouling of the water and subsequent use of antibiotics are largely a thing of the past, according to the MAA, with farmed salmon now eating hormone-free and antibiotic-free feed. Vaccines for diseases in salmon are much more common and effective. MAA claims that today no more than 5 percent of the salmon harvest is treated with antibiotics, comparing it to beef and chicken production, which relies on antibiotics to enhance growth. Some marine farms have pledged to operate without use of hormones or antibiotics; others are seeking organic certification status, according to the MAA.

And all of this statewide sea farming activity is being done on a marine footprint about the size of the Portland Jetport, leaving room for expansion as well as sharing the waterfront with lobster fishermen and other wild harvesters, and the view with coastal residents.

The general mood of the 450 marine researchers, economic development professionals looking to finance good ideas, and sea farmers from New England and the Maritimes who were packed into the downtown Holiday Inn for the conference was one of entrepreneurial excitement and opportunity, where problems are not obstacles, but puzzles to be solved.

Researchers were looking for new ideas, farmers were looking for researchers to develop new products in the lab and engineers to develop new harvesting equipment, and economic developers sized up those interested in starting out or stepping up. Kelp farmers shared marketing ideas and supply-chain knowledge, oyster farmers called for research on diseases affecting oysters, researchers pondered developing pharmaceuticals from mussel shells and heard the eye-popping fact that cosmetics giant Estee Lauder charges $1,300 an ounce for its kelp-enhanced beauty cream - using European kelp.

Belle focused on food production, pointing out that the need to develop new sources of food, particularly protein-rich food, for a growing global population has been recognized as a priority by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with estimates that we will need to produce two to three times more food by 2050 to feed the world.

"We know that terrestrial food production - farming - is limited by access to land, nutrients, and access to water," said Belle. "Seafood is part of that solution."

There is also an urgent need to find alternatives to wild harvests of fish and seafood, since about four-fifths of global fisheries are either not sustainable, or barely so, as outlined by Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in "Full Planet, Empty Plates," his comprehensive 2012 assessment of global food resources.

For the first time, slow-to-act government agencies are acknowledging declining wild fisheries are a fact, leading the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to embrace aquaculture and integrate it into how it manages fisheries, according to John K. Bullard, who addressed the full conference. Bullard is responsible for directing marine fisheries management for NOAA from Canada to Cape Hatteras.
In all of this, Maine is well placed to take advantage of opportunities to expand aquaculture because of its relatively undeveloped coastline, good growing conditions, and access to 150 million consumers within a 24-hour drive, said Belle.

"That is a huge advantage to delivering fresh seafood," he said. Maine seafood also has an established advertising edge as being grown in clean, cold waters that Belle said must be maintained as an industry standard as aquaculture grows. Marine sea farmers overall have taken steps to develop sustainable farming practices that have a neutral or positive environmental impact. In addition to government regulatory oversight by federal and state resource managers, the farms are audited to see that they meet the environmental management principles embraced by the United Nations.

Maine does not want to try to compete with low prices from the Asian aquaculture market, said Belle, where seafood and seaweed are often mass produced under questionable quality controls. Instead, the Maine industry must continue to establish itself as a purveyor of fresh sea products of uncompromising quality.

The products are diverse. Take Sea and Reef Aquaculture in Franklin, which grows captive-bred tropical clownfish for the aquarium market; their Nemo is marketed as a hearty long-living, people-friendly, non-aggressive, captive-bred alternative to wild fish that are being depleted from coral reefs in the wild.

Currently, 24 species of seafood and sea vegetables are grown on 180 Maine farms, said Belle, and more farmers are coming to Maine to establish businesses because of the comprehensive economic incentives provided through the Maine Aquaculture Development Center, Coastal Enterprises, and the Maine Technology Institute.

"A fifth-generation mussel farmer from Holland just started a company here because of those incentives," said Belle.

Maine also has the best aquaculture research facilities in North America, including the University of Maine Darling Marine Center and the Aquaculture Center in Orono and the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research. There are also the federal USDA National Coldwater Marine Aquaculture Research Station, the Downeast Institute for Applied Research and Education, the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and two business incubators for aquaculture, as well as the aquaculture focus at the University of New England, which offers the only four-year degree in aquaculture in the state. In addition, there are resources offered by the world-renowned Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences or the Gulf of Maine Research Institute that contribute to the knowledge base in Maine.

Given all of this research and applied research capability, Belle said it is alarming that research faculty is lacking at the University of Maine and at the University of New England.

The University of Maine has three academic aquaculture positions currently open.

"The academic and research community is key to having a competitive aquaculture industry in Maine and the country," said Belle. "We have a big role to play and it is an unusual opportunity."

But that window is narrowing. Coastal access will continue to shrink without broad-based aquaculture efforts, and the momentum generated by the $45 million in research facilities may stall without fast action, he said.

"We are at a fork in the road and if we do not get that expertise we will have wasted millions building public facilities," said Belle. "They are going to demand value and a return on that investment."

"We need to establish Maine as a research hub," he said. "It needs to happen."