The commercial fishing industry is always beset by uncertainty. But in the Gulf of Maine, climate change is amplifying the risks. The waters off Maine are warming faster than most of the planet’s saltwater oceans, disrupting coastal ecosystems and economies.
The booming lobster industry faces some tough new challenges, and some industry leaders are betting on diversification to hedge against the unpredictable. This story is the first in a series, “Aquaculture’s Next Wave,” focusing on promising alternatives gaining steam in Maine.
Marsden Brewer is a third-generation Maine fishermen who docks in Stonington.
“I’ve been involved in all the fisheries over my lifetime,” he says.
These days it’s mostly lobster, but he has fished cod and shrimp, and carted urchin to market. They were all once-vibrant species, but now they’re mostly off-limits after being overfished and weakened by climate change.
“I’ve seen the collapse and been part of the collapse of most of the fisheries. Not intentionally, but just the way it was set up to work it wasn’t sustainable, and this project here is looking at sustainability in a fishery,” he says.
The project Brewer refers to is a 20-year effort to diversify his business by developing a profitable scallop farm. He used to scatter baby scallops in the bay, then trawl up the adults a couple years later. Success was limited though.
Now, from his 38-foot lobster boat moored more than a mile offshore, he’s experimenting with methods from Japan, where scallop farming is a long tradition.
Brewer, his son Bobby, and Dana Morse, a marine extension agent with the University of Maine, winch up from the depths a long rope strung with 12-foot dark mesh bags. The collapsible bags are partitioned by horizontal shelves, giving them the look of giant Japanese paper lanterns. Inside, each level holds 20 or so squirting scallops.
Brewer first netted these scallops two years ago, when they were in their free-floating larval stage, known as a spat. The boat’s crew carefully measures their growth. They’re more than 2 inches wide now — not quite ready yet for market.
Extension agent Morse first visited Japan 20 years ago to check out scallop systems there, and he’s been back since — towing along fishermen like Brewer. Now Morse says the Brewers are leading the way for other lobstermen looking for affordable ways to diversify.
“The handling system that Marsden and Bob have put together is fabulous, because it allows them to be lobster fishing at one time in the day and then with maybe a half an hour’s difference they can be scallop farming. So that’s flexibility right there,” he says.
Back the scallops go, deep into the nutritious water column. Brewer expects to sell tens of thousands this winter, fetching upwards of $1.50 each wholesale. Eventually he expects scallop profits to rival his lobster take — and more predictably.
“It’s got some real good potential,” he says. “Just want to make sure everything’s going to work before we take the next step.”
Down in Casco Bay, some young shellfish entrepreneurs are going all-in on the next step.
Jon Gorman works at Bangs Islands Mussels. On a boat docked on Portland’s waterfront, he and a gaggle of young men from several Maine shellfish farms run live scallops through a high-pressure washer. It was just imported from Japan by the nonprofit Coastal Enterprises Inc., which is encouraging seafood farmers around Maine to try it out.
For these guys it’s strictly learn as you go, because the manual is in Japanese.
“The more we learn about it the more we realize how well designed it really is. It makes me a little nervous though, having such expensive machinery on this boat,” Gorman says.
On the wharf, the scallops are sorted and clipped into a metal conveyor belt, to be met by an automated drill that punches tiny holes through their squared-off corners, known as the “ears.”
Nate Perry, of the Pine Point Oyster Co., fine tunes the drill.
“It’s very precise. Once you’ve really dialed it in you can really turn the speed up and you can’t keep up with it almost,” he says.
Next the men thread plastic pins through the scallops’ newly pierced ears, then string them on a rope to be sent back to the sea. The Japanese technique is called “ear-hanging.”
Back at the washer, Gorman, 30, says new technologies that save time processing scallops — and other marine crops — promise a bright future for aquaculture in Maine.
“I see a lot of growth and you never know,” he says. “We’re going to be doing scallops, then we’ll be back to mussels, and then the springtime and fall we’re into kelp. It’s fun.”
Gorman and a growing number of would-be scallop farmers are hoping, in addition to being fun, it will be profitable.