Micmac Farms Marketing Manager Jacob Pelkey holds a trout taken from the Micmac Fish Farm's land-based aquaculture facility. All trout are fed a natural diet which not only improves the color of the fish, but makes for a healthier meal, according to Pelkey. Credit: Christopher Bouchard | Aroostook Republican & News

BELFAST, Maine — As local officials deliberate on plans for a controversial land-based salmon farm, about 250 aquaculture farmers, researchers, students and others convened at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center on Friday to explore the possibilities of the growing industry.

Currently, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported — so there’s a lot of opportunity for domestic growth in the market, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

Right now, Mainers are commercially raising species as diverse as eels, sea vegetables, salmon, finfish, oysters, trout, scallops and mussels — and all on less than 1,500 acres of total aquaculture leases.

“By world standards, it’s laughably small,” Belle said of the current aquaculture footprint. “It’s tiny. That’s smaller than an Aroostook County potato farm.”

He was speaking at the fourth Maine Aquaculture Research, Development & Education Summit hosted by the University of Maine, the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and the Aquaculture Research Institute.

Belle, who’s spent decades working to help Maine become a national leader in aquaculture, said the industry has seen periods of increased controversy since 1973, when it began to modernize systems and technologies. That’s why pushback against both the Nordic Aquafarms land-based salmon farm project in Belfast and the controversial oyster farm proposed for Maquoit Bay in Brunswick hasn’t been surprising, Belle said.

Opponents to these projects have cited a number of environmental and other concerns.

“This is nothing new,” Belle said of the vociferous criticism of the two projects. “But I would say that, in general, the sector is very positively received. I think you’ll find that the vast majority of Mainers are very supportive of it.”

Belle said he believes that the industry’s potential can be seen in the people who came to the one-day summit, which has seen an increase in attendance since it started.

“Look around the room. Look at the numbers of young, energetic, entrepreneurial people,” Belle said. “That is what we need in Maine. We should be celebrating that, not vilifying it.”

Jacob Pelkey, 26, was one of those entrepreneurs. He is the marketing manager for Micmac Farms in Caribou, which is owned by the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. At the Micmac Fish Farm, they use a recirculating aquaculture system to raise brook trout, with about 65,000 fish in the system currently. He told the attendees that the farm, which sells fish in New England, is the first to offer eastern brook trout commercially and that it has sold out for the entire season.

“Our facility is bringing a lot to the tribe,” Pelkey said.

It also is providing the first positive glimpse of aquaculture to the many local schoolchildren who visit the fish farm.

“We’re so far removed in Aroostook from the aquaculture or seafood scene, we’re the first point of contact. It’s important to let them know we’re their neighbor,” he said, adding that the tribe wants to be the best neighbor it can be. “It’s really important to the Aroostook Band of Micmacs that we’re raising the fish ethically, and using the most sustainable strategies we can.”