ELLSWORTH — “When COVID hit, our sales shut down instantly,” Brooksville oyster farmer Tonyia Peasley recalled. She and husband Frank Peasley own and operate Little Island Oyster Co., where the Bagaduce River winds through Brooksville.
With roughly 80 percent of seafood landing in restaurant kitchens for their diners to consume, the initial pandemic shutdown was devastating for growers and harvesters of oysters, mussels, seaweeds and other aquaculture products, according to the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA).
So, to help aquaculturists navigate the maze of new and vanishing distribution channels, the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA) released an Aquaculture Distribution Mapping Manual on March 1. The manual maps the existing and potential distribution options open to Maine sea farmers, with estimates of costs and volumes. It also includes tradeoffs and identifies the barriers associated with each method.
“As Maine’s working waterfront continues to face new supply chain challenges, the industry and consumer demand keeps growing,” said Sebastian Belle, the MAA’s executive director. “By nature, Maine’s farm fishing families are open to navigating choppy waters when they need to.”
For Little Island Oyster Co., 2020 brought a 99 percent loss in wholesale accounts — “a direct result of restaurants being closed and wholesale distributor issues, such as truck drivers and their facilities being short-staffed,” Tonyia Peasley said.
Seafood wasn’t the only product that suffered. Shortages and delays across a range of once easily available items from cat food to construction materials continue even as the pandemic appears to wind down in the U.S. and Europe. But while distribution lines and wholesale buyers fell off for seafood, retail sales were up 35 percent in 2020, the MAA noted.
For smaller aquaculture-based operations like Little Island Oyster, that meant a quick shift toward the retail market.
“In 2020, our sales were solely to individuals, right off the farm,” Peasley said. “2021 was a continuation of these issues, with sales still being off.”
The MAA first spoke with seafood producers, wholesalers, distributors, restauranteurs, trucking companies and other members of the aquaculture industry, in Maine and across the U.S., before coming up with the manual’s three main recommendations. First, diversify sales channels. Second, maintain strong relationships. And third, keep product quality consistent.
Little Island Oyster hit all three marks, finding a new buyer, or “channel,” by selling mature oysters to The Nature Conservancy for reseeding estuaries, Peasley said, through its Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) program designed to help farmers affected by COVID-19.
“This was a win-win for us,” Peasley said. “It helped us realize other avenues we might utilize to sell our oysters, while at the same time helping other communities as they work to restore their watersheds.”
It’s no surprise that the aquaculture boom in Maine continues, even during the pandemic. Broad state support in recent years, through the Department of Marine Resources, the University of Maine Aquaculture Research Institute and nonprofits like Maine Sea Grant, the Island Institute and Gulf of Maine Research Institute has grown the sector in recent years. And that growth has been fast.
The MAA reports that the industry’s economic impact nearly tripled between 2007 and 2014, from $50 million to $137 million in a statewide industry that includes nearly 200 farms and more than 700 farmers, the MAA notes.
“Sustainable aquaculture has tremendous potential to bolster Maine’s coastal economy, providing good jobs, local food security and diversification opportunities for working waterfront families,” MMA noted in its announcement of its Distribution Mapping Manual.
The manual lists all available sales channels, with their benefits and drawbacks, and innovative ways to deliver products to their destinations. General recommendations for growers — especially new growers — are to start small, maintain quality and relationships and use marketing to connect with customers to “sell your story.”
MAA partnered with FocusMaine, a nonprofit investing in agriculture, aquaculture and biopharmaceuticals to help create local jobs in those industries, to fund the manual, which can be viewed at maineaqua.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/Maine-Aquaculture-Distribution-Mapping-Manual.pdf.