Credit: George Danby

Maine is resilient. As former economic sectors decline, we find new ways to market our natural resources, provide jobs for Maine families, and support local and regional economies.

Today, Maine is on the cusp of another economic resurgence — this time in aquaculture. Not one, but two significant projects are under development in midcoast Maine, both slated to raise Atlantic salmon in state-of-the art facilities. One of them, Whole Oceans in Bucksport, will redeploy paper mill infrastructure at the former Champion International mill site. The other, Nordic Aquafarms, will add to the growing industry in Belfast, once a chicken production capital of the world.

Aquaculture is the fastest growing food producing sector, growing at 5 percent annually between 2003 and 2016, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2018 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture report. By 2030, aquaculture will account for 60 percent of global fish food consumption, helping to preserve our fragile wild fish population. By these measures, it’s not surprising that aquaculture holds the power to transform economies.

If Maine plays its cards right, we can capture a significant portion of this transformative energy, competing with Scotland, Norway and Canada to meet the expanding global demand for nutritious fish protein. Importantly, Maine stands to gain more than 2,000 new jobs over the next 10 years as a result of growth in the aquaculture sector, according to FocusMaine’s own extensive research. The growth of related jobs would push this number even higher.

What gives us reason to believe that Maine can compete on even footing?

Maine is one of the top four U.S. states in terms of coastline, with more than 3,478 miles — even exceeding California’s — and an abundance of lakes and rivers for freshwater species. Our fishing heritage is already helping to meet growing consumer demand. Our waters are cold, clean and rich in nutrients.

[Opinion: Maine salmon farms can be models of sustainable aquaculture]

We have world-class research institutions with a deep bench of technical know-how. Consider the University of Maine’s Aquaculture Research Institute, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, University of New England’s marine sciences program, the Downeast Institute and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, to name a few. These organizations are ready and willing to help communities, Maine-based entrepreneurs and aquaculture businesses tap into the potential of the expanding blue economy.

Maine also happens to be located conveniently close to East Coast population centers and European markets that are already willing to pay higher prices for traceable, Maine-sourced products like our oysters. In fact, given Maine’s assets, we’re currently punching below our weight.

We know that Maine could become a market leader in the United States, and a world leader not only in farm-raised salmon, but also in select products like mussels, oysters, kelp and scallops. But it will take focused effort. FocusMaine has identified three areas to supercharge our aquaculture future.

First, we’re helping to grow, coach and sustain emerging aquaculture businesses — those entrepreneurs who are willing to take early risks to put Maine at the forefront and expand our exports.

Second, we want more businesses like Whole Oceans and Nordic Aquafarms to call Maine home and employ hard-working Mainers in their facilities. There are more companies that will follow these pioneering enterprises, and we want to help them see their future and find their future workforce in Maine.

Third, we’re using new business planning tools and investor forums to help potential investors in Maine and around the world better understand the opportunities and measure the risks to encourage them to put more of their capital to work in our state.

Each new aquaculture company grown in Maine or recruited to Maine will help pave the way for the next one, training our workforce and bringing in new technology along the way. Mainers up and down the coast stand to benefit greatly from this new dynamic: good jobs, revitalized communities, old facilities given a new life, and more sustainable and nutritious food on our tables and for the world.

This is what resilience looks like. This is what Maine looks like.

Kimberly A. Hamilton, Ph.D., is president of FocusMaine, a private-sector initiative dedicated to growing quality jobs in Maine.

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