Oyster cages afloat in a Quahog Bay Conservancy limited purpose aquaculture (LPA) site off Snow Island in this 2017 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Fiona de Koning and her husband own and operate Hollander & de Köning in Trenton, which grows the only “Dutch-style” mussels in North America.

As we approach winter, it’s an ideal time to reflect on the challenges in the seafood industry since the start of the pandemic and the need to continue to support an industry that feeds millions of Americans a year. As a fifth-generation marine farmer, shellfish aquaculture is my family’s livelihood. Farming mussels has kept my family employed since 2005 in Maine, and since 1776 in Europe, and it has enabled us to put dinner on our table every day — a fresh meal at that.

Aquaculture, the raising of fish, seaweed and other aquatic organisms in our waters, is the fastest growing food sector in the world. In Maine, aquaculture is a key part of the solution to support our working waterfronts and bring economic benefits to those impacted by the decline in wild fisheries. I’m encouraged by the number of fishermen that are turning to aquaculture for an income. We are beginning to see a small, yet steady increase in growth in the aquaculture industry from wild fisheries license holders.

The projection for industry jobs is very encouraging. A doubling of U.S. aquaculture production could create an additional 50,000 direct and indirect jobs, including in coastal states, like Maine, where jobs are often limited and seasonally dependent, to provide year-round employment for fishing communities.

By 2030, consumption of farmed fish is expected to rise to nearly two-thirds of our total seafood intake. To meet that demand, the industry will need to fill jobs all along the supply chain; equipment suppliers, farming operations, wholesaler distributors and in retail. Aquaculture businesses will continue to need researchers, engineers and technicians to support the rate of innovation that we are seeing. Aquaculture companies help provide food security for the nation in these troubled times. With international distribution taking a major hit in this recession, it warrants us paying attention to the food production needs of our country from domestic production.

Technology is playing an increasing role in aquaculture production, including the deployment of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies used for real-time measurement and monitoring of the fish and other aquatic life to ensure efficient sustainability practices. At our mussel farm, technology helps us maintain high quality standards for production, harvest and when taking care of our employees. From every stage of the farm cycle, from seeding the farm sites, to monitoring and husbandry, to processing, packaging and shipping, technology is carefully executed to protect the mussels so that the consumer can enjoy the freshest shellfish and taste of Maine. It also ensures we perform to the highest environmental sustainability standards.

There are often questions about the environmental footprint and transparency of the industry. Aquaculture is indeed one of the most environmentally responsible means to feed Americans. The U.S., and particularly Maine, currently have some of the most rigorous aquaculture regulations in the world. We are held up as examples of how to do things the right way by other countries.

Shellfish farming is inherently sustainable. It is an enhanced natural process of seafood production with no feed or treatments. Sunlight and ocean water produce plankton, and mussels filter the ocean water for phytoplankton to grow into a delicious source of food. Shellfish farms add ecosystem services and improve water quality through the natural filter feeding of the mussels as they grow to market size. One adult mussel can filter as much as 15 gallons of seawater per day, providing better water quality for the surrounding habitats and environments.

During this ongoing public health crisis, aquaculture addresses many needs. That is why momentum is growing in our nation’s capital to support the expansion of aquaculture through the introduction of new legislation this year. I call on ocean enthusiasts, the farm-to-table movement, foodie and local food champions, healthy eating advocates, entrepreneurs, chefs, the hospitality sector and the tourism sector to support this great industry because the future is bright.