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'Aquaculture's Next Wave' Explores How Maine Entrepreneurs Are Navigating Changing Seas

Fred Bever
Maine Public
Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm in his Walpole oyster facility when it was still under construction. He will be able to store a half million live oysters in here, protecting them from rainfall events and toxins while competitors harvests are off-limits.

This week we’re taking a deep dive into aquaculture and its potential to add real value to the state’s coastal economies. In “Aquaculture’s Next Wave” we will meet the innovators who are trying to take seafood farming to a new level in Maine.

Worldwide, aquaculture now provides more than half the world’s seafood. Yet here in the U.S. and in Maine, it’s far behind wild caught harvest. At the same time, we in the U.S. import roughly 90 percent of our seafood. For some investors and entrepreneurs, including Maine lobstermen, that spells opportunity.

Maine Public reporter Fred Bever spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about aggressive exploration of new technologies and new markets for farmed seafood.

Gratz: Why is aquaculture important right now?

Bever: It’s because marine ecosystems and economies are being disrupted. Actively farming fish, shellfish, even seaweed — that can be a hedge against disruption and, long term, maybe the most profitable response. There’s a growing set of Maine visionaries who are pursuing that.

The planet’s oceans are always in flux and wild harvests have long been vulnerable to natural variation and overfishing, right?

Yes, but with the oceans warming, the dynamics are accelerating, and that’s nowhere more true than in the Gulf of Maine.

Scientists say the Gulf is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, correct?

That’s almost a truism now. We’ve seen epic disruptions in recent decades — the crash of cod, fisheries for marine shrimp, for urchin and now herring are all restricted, lobster populations are making a slow march ever north and east following the warming trends.

That’s been good for Maine lobstermen, and for the state, correct?

Absolutely. But scientists and even some lobstermen, like Jeff Putnam, who fishes 800 traps from Chebeague Island year round, worry that the boom will bust. Here he is:

“Just got to the point where I was a little concerned that if something happens to the lobster resource that’s beyond our control, how am I going to make a living on this island for the next 20 or 30 years?”

That’s why he started an oyster farm in a little cove on Chebeague just a couple of years ago. He’s teaching his kids how to lobster, sure, but also how to grow oysters. He wants them to be able to make a living on the island just as he and his father did.

But it’s not just lobstermen who are taking up aquaculture?

It’s entrepreneurs of all varieties, from young Mainers who are looking to build a future at home to international investors who are looking for new revenue streams, and big ones.

Oysters have been a big story.

Maine’s oyster production tripled over the last decade, right through the recession. But even oysters face some environmental challenges. We’ll be looking at one oyster grower who’s leveraging cutting-edge technology to protect his crop. He’s even trying to use it to get a leg up on his competitors.

And new tech spells new opportunity.

Yes, and the cool tech factor was almost everywhere I looked in reporting these stories. Scallop farmers adapting Japanese machinery to increase production, clean rooms where these massive vats of microscopic sea plants are grown entirely in the dark. You know those tiny glass eels that Maine fishermen are making bank on by shipping them to Japan?

The Japanese grow them up to full size make them into sushi.

Yes, well there’s a young woman in Maine who’s designing and building the first commercial eel growing operation in the U.S., over in midcoast. There are not one but two companies trying to scale up indoor salmon growing tech. So far they say they could supply more than a tenth of the country’s entire salmon consumption, if their home communities let them.

That’s another part of this story. Conflict over aquaculture’s expansion. If the sector is to grow as much in Maine as some would hope, there’s going to be tension over public resources. Is there room on the water for everyone? Will shorefront retirees give up their coastal serenity? Where does all the fish poop end up? I spoke with one booster, Sebastian Bell, who runs the Maine Aquaculture Association. He says the sector is poised to grow as fast as 10 or 12 percent a year. But he says don’t suspect a sudden and unsustainable boom:

“Aquaculture will be one of a number of solutions that will help the working waterfront survive in Maine. But it takes time to learn the skills that are needed for a new way to make a living, it takes time to build those businesses.”

And that’s one of the most fascinating things about the sector. Entrepreneurs here in Maine are experimenting with a whole bunch of new ways to make a living from the changing seas around us.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.