PORTLAND — If Maine’s politicians want to find an industry that is, as the current catch phrase goes, a “job creator,” perhaps they should be looking at aquaculture.
That, at least, was one takeaway from the Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition held in Portland last week. Sponsored by a consortium including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Association (NRAC), the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and the New England Sea Grant, the biennial event drew hundreds of scientists, fish farmers and investors from the United States and Canada to three days of seminars on a wide range of topics.
The diverse selection included: aquaculture research and development opportunities in Maine; the potential for farming eels; farming shellfish such as mussels, oysters and clams and dealing with the diseases that may affect them and the predators — such as green crabs — that consume them; ocean acidification; and the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in aquaculture.
Maine has had a more or less organized aquaculture industry since at least the 1970s, when a handful of pioneers began growing oysters in Blue Hill Bay and the Damariscotta River and experimenting with growing Atlantic salmon Downeast.
According to figures compiled by the Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Aquaculture Association, as of March 2014 there were 103 commercial aquaculture leases encompassing some 1,280 acres of the state’s waterways and an additional 148 Limited Purpose Aquaculture Licenses encompassing 1.48 acres. The most recent landings figures suggest that the industry has sales worth $50 million to $80 million.
In 2010, the last year for which figures are available, Maine’s farmed Atlantic salmon industry — operated almost entirely by the Cooke Aquaculture Co. of Canada — had sales of nearly $73.6 million. Salmon sales figures for the past four years are confidential, but they remain significant.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent Census of Aquaculture, in 2013 Maine aquaculture sales had a total value of $57.3 million. Much of that decline can be attributed to a sharp drop in salmon prices during 2011 and 2012 and a slow recovery in 2013.
In recent years, Maine has developed a significant research and development program, primarily through the work of University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research, the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and Sea Grant.
Among the species under study by private entities are yellowtail and halibut — both to be reared in recirculating aquaculture systems, scallops and green sea urchins.
Research continues into the culture and use of polychaete worms (blood worms) in recirculating systems and under salmon pens, and Maine also has a significant tropical fish industry raising specimens for the aquarium trade.
Aquaculture research will get a substantial boost from a $20 million National Science Foundation grant announced last August to fund a Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network in Maine. The multi-institutional, public-private partnership will be led by UMaine in collaboration with the University of New England and “will use the state’s 3,500-mile coastline as a living laboratory to study physical oceanography” and other scientific and socioeconomic issues “that have local, bioregional, national and global implications,” according to the grant announcement.