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Business and Economy

‘The Wave Of The Future Is Breaking, Right Here In Maine’ - Aquaculture And Maine Entrepreneurs

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Fred Bever
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Maine Public
Bobby Brewer (right) and his father Marsden, and University of Maine Extension Agent Dana Morse (left) check out maturing oysters in a Japanese “lantern bag” hauled from the waters off Stonington.";s:

Maine's 21st century saltwater farmers are using new techniques and technology to produce scallops, oysters, salmon and eels — to name just a few. All this week Maine Public Radio is profiling innovators who want to take Maine's aquaculture industry to the next level.

Maine Public reporter Fred Bever has spent some time with these entrepreneurs, reporting for our series, "Aquaculture's Next Wave." He joined Nora Flaherty on Maine Things Considered to discuss the project.

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Flaherty: Fred, you've been doing a lot of reporting on this. What's the bottom line?

Bever: The bottom line is that Maine fishermen are increasingly turning to farming fish and shellfish as a hedge against uncertainty about the wild fisheries.

Now, is that because the Gulf of Maine is warming so fast? Is it overfishing?

It's both, and there are other factors, but the Gulf is warming faster than most saltwater bodies on the planet, which is disrupting ecosystems and wild-caught harvests. The herring fishery is recently in trouble — we’ve seen a lot about that in the news lately — but cod, urchin, Maine shrimp, they're all restricted now or completely off-limits.

But the warmer waters have been good for lobster populations here and for the lobster industry, right?

Incredibly good, we’ve seen record hauls this decade. But an appreciable number of lobstermen are not taking that for granted. Lobster populations are slowly moving north and east, herring for bait are an issue now, and the plight of the North Atlantic right whale threatens to force expensive, and maybe prohibitive, gear changes by fishermen.

And many of today's lobstermen used to fish for cod, so they've seen how quickly a business model can sink. That's why Marsden Brewer, a lobsterman I met in Stonington, is branching out to farming scallops:

"You know I've seen the collapse of most of the fisheries...just the way it was set up to work, it wasn't sustainable. And this project here is looking at sustainability." - Brewer

He's adapting Japanese farming techniques and machine’s to Maine's waters.

Technological innovation is a big part of what's going on.

The wave of the future is breaking, right here in Maine. The Japanese scallop tech is spreading. And there's a young woman Down East who's growing eels to full-size, indoors. That's a technological first in the U.S. An oyster-grower in the Damariscotta estuary just designed and built a whole new facility just to protect his crop against the challenges of climate change.

Is the sector really growing that much though?

It's dwarfed by the lobster industry, certainly. But there is excitement, it’s palpable. All these advances could mean jobs into the future, particularly for young people who are looking for new ways to make a career in-state, and not just on the water. I saw that when I visited a restaurant called the Shuck Station in Newcastle a few weeks ago. Owner Brendan Parsons is a native Mainer, still in his 20s…He says he's all about aquaculture:

"And obviously I focus on oysters, but then also talking about other aquaculture regarding muscles, experimental scallop farms, seaweed farms, even eel farms." - Parsons

That day [when I spoke to Brendan], the local oyster river-harvest had been shut down because of runoff from some heavy rains. But because of that oyster innovator down the road, Parsons was able to secure a ready supply of fresh-harvested oysters:

"Damn right I did, and they’ve been really pivotal to everything I’ve done." - Parsons

There's really a sense of momentum behind farmed seafood in Maine.

 But it's not about everyone getting together and singing Kumbaya…

Sometimes, but sometimes not, especially when ‘Big Aqua’ tries to move in, it seems.

We're seeing that in Belfast, where Norwegian investors are proposing to scale-up indoor salmon farming technology to a new scale, investing millions of dollars, and drawing a lot of local opposition. A forty-acre oyster farm, and that’s pretty big for Maine, is being proposed in the Maquoit Bay, not far from Brunswick. It's getting resistance. We'll look at those kinds of conflicts, and whether there may be limits on just how fast this sector, which depends on public resources, can grow.

Well I cannot wait to hear this series, I'm looking forward to it, starting tomorrow on Morning Edition. Thanks Fred.

Thank you, Nora.

This interview has been edited for clarity.