By Joanna Fogg
As a sea farmer I am asked, almost daily, about aquaculture and its rapid growth in the state of Maine. I take the time to answer because it means that other people also care about our shared ocean and the future of this coastline.
I don’t see the sector of aquaculture as expanding rapidly. It took us almost three years to complete our application and receive our 22-acre lease in Mt. Desert Narrows. We also have 3,200 square feet of limited purpose sites in the Skillings River, which allows us to run an upweller for our small seed in the spring, and to harvest through the ice year-round. The leasing process is long, rigorous and full of scrutiny, as it should be.
I understand that, to some, 22 acres may seem like a lot of space for one company. Some would even consider this “industrial.” I’m willing to offer some transparency about my company so that everyone who is interested can understand what we do, how small we are, and why I don’t think aquaculture is growing fast enough.
The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 98 percent of the water on the planet. With rising sea temps comes ocean acidification. These two things combined could have an unprecedented impact on the health of the ocean and its resources. Shellfish, by nature, filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. They improve water clarity and quality. As importantly, they sequester CO2 from the water to form their shells. They are carbon sinks actively deacidifying the ocean. Optimizing the growing conditions of native species of shellfish is an act of protecting our waters.
We currently have 516 oyster cages on our farm. In a year’s time, at full production, we anticipate having 700 cages. Each cage is not much bigger than a lobster trap and most commercial fishermen are allowed 800 of them. On this much space, with four employees, a 10-by-20-foot work float and two Carolina skiffs, we can raise a few hundred thousand market-size oysters a year. This year we project selling up to 200,000 oysters and we don’t move a single one beyond MDI. Everything we farm here, stays here. We have a waitlist for our product, and I buy oysters from two other companies to supplement our supply, both of which are family-owned, as are 99 percent of sea farms in Maine.
The U.S. imports over 90 percent of its seafood. Much of that is caught here, shipped away, processed abroad and imported back. This inefficiency turns my stomach. The parts of the food system that are not in our backyard will affect us the most in the long run. They take jobs from local people and have a huge carbon footprint. Pound per pound, Maine aquaculture produces among the lowest carbon footprint of any animal protein.
In the summer we are moving tens of thousands of oysters a week on small boats with efficient four-stroke outboards that are quieter than lawn mowers. Product is harvested and delivered within a matter of hours. We transport in a regular size pickup that has a refrigerated unit on the back. We sell hundreds of oysters a week out of our workshop on our property. I do all of our bookkeeping at a desk in my kitchen. Industrial? I think not.
Less than 1 percent of Maine’s coast is being used for aquaculture. I don’t believe that’s enough given all of the challenges of climate change and food production that we are faced with on this planet. I know that wild fisheries, aquaculture, eco-tourism and recreation can coexist in a bay; I witness it every day. I completely empathize with the reality that sea farms change the view. We are fifth-generation Mainers — we’re not wicked stoked about change either. But change is inevitable, and we have the opportunity to shape it.
My hope is that there is a cultural shift that adjusts the lens on sea farming. We need public support to be moving as fast as climate change and we need to be able to scale so that we are economically viable. When I see our oyster cages, I don’t see something ugly that ruins the view. I see jobs on the working waterfront. I see the cultural heritage of Maine alive. I see resiliency. I see a native superfood that is sustainable and thriving. And I see people harvesting from waters that are protected and pristine. To me, it’s a thing of beauty.
Joanna Fogg is a Mount Desert Island native, graduate of College of the Atlantic, mom and outdoor enthusiast who co-founded Bar Harbor Oyster Co. with her husband, Jesse, in 2014. She volunteers as a member of the Marine Resource Committee for the town of Bar Harbor and serves on the Maine Aquaculture Association’s board of directors.