ELLSWORTH — Aquaculture has been a big business in Maine for decades, but the industry is changing fast.
Less than a decade ago, there seemed to be no good way for someone wanting to find out about growing shellfish or seaweed to stake a claim on a small patch of water and learn about what it takes — environmentally and personally — to become a successful sea farmer.
That began to change when the Legislature gave potential farmers an option to applying for a standard aquaculture lease — an expensive and time-consuming process — by establishing the limited purpose aquaculture license.
Known universally as an LPA, the annual license allows a small-scale farmer to culture certain types of shellfish and seaweed in a delineated area of no more than 400 square feet.
The license requires only the approval of the local harbormaster and the Department of Marine Resources and costs $50 per year and no license holder may have more than four LPAs.
In less than 10 years, the number of LPAs has exploded.
According to Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, eight years ago there were no LPAs. As of last Thursday, according to an online DMR database, there were 721 LPAs authorized in Maine waters. Of those, some 538 appear to be active, most of them growing shellfish.
Although the area covered statewide by the LPAs is minuscule — some 288,400 square feet or a little more than six acres along the thousands of miles of Maine shoreline — DMR recently instituted a training requirement for LPA license holders seeking to renew their licenses for 2019 and thereafter.
Last Wednesday, about 50 licensees gathered at Ellsworth City Hall to fulfill the training requirement. The meeting was one of six held throughout the state, with others in Machias, Augusta, West Boothbay Harbor, Brunswick and Scarborough.
Over the course of nearly an hour, DMR seafood inspection, HACCP and dealer certification supervisor Skip Fendl outlined the intricacies of the shellfish health and water quality monitoring and explained the operation of the state’s system of closing areas to shellfish harvesting.
As filter feeders, shellfish are particularly susceptible to contamination from the water they ingest. That contamination can be in the form of viruses that might be present in water tainted by failing septic systems or runoff from heavy rainfall events, or biotoxins produced by marine phytoplankton that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning or diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP).
Different species of shellfish stay contaminated for different lengths of time — until they completely purge their systems with uncontaminated water. Scallops hold on to toxins longest and they are difficult to detect, Fendl said, so the state completely bans consumption of any part of the scallop except its adductor muscle.
While the first of those toxins has long been common in the Gulf of Maine, over the past few summers the DSP toxin has been found in increasing levels.
Fendl explained to the license holders that consuming shellfish contaminated with biotoxins can be extremely dangerous and that the shellfish farmers must rely on DMR monitoring and obey DMR closings. Contaminated shellfish don’t look, taste or behave any differently from safe shellfish, he said.
Fendl also gave shellfish farmers a quick introduction to the risk that the vibrio bacteria poses to oyster farmers. Not native to Maine and currently found in only two spots on the Midcoast, the bacteria is not dangerous to humans but can wipe out a farmer’s entire oyster crop.
The oyster and other shellfish are highly susceptible to warm temperatures after they have been harvested. They can easily spoil, and cause human health problems, if they heat up in the sun or a car trunk on the way to a dealer, even if they are later refrigerated.
“Keep it clean, keep it cold,” Fendl said.
Controlling the spread of vibrio was just one part of a wider focus on the importance of protecting LPA sites from intrusion by “peats, parasites and pathogens,” the aquaculture association’s Belle said in explaining the importance of “biosecurity” on even the smallest sea farms.
Another crucial matter for LPA holders to think about, Belle said, was that although they had a license from DMR they still had to earn and then retain a “social license” by being considerate of their neighbors on the water and ashore.
“Think of yourself as an ambassador,” he told the crowd.