Co-owner of Nautical Farms Jake Patryn harvesting kelp. Photo courtesy of Nautical Farms.
By Wanda Curtis

As the entire country struggles to recover from the economic downturn caused by COVID 19, one industry that’s still flourishing is the seafood industry. Executive Director of the Maine Aquaculture Association Sebastian Belle reports that the demand for fresh, high quality seafood has skyrocketed in the past year.

“When the restaurant sector shut down [due to the pandemic], one of the biggest surprises to us, who are in this sector, is that retail sales of seafood went off the charts,” Belle said.

According to Belle, retail sales of seafood increased by roughly 30-40 percent       the past year. He said that, prior to the pandemic, 80 percent of seafood was consumed in restaurants. However, when restaurants shuttered down, people began to experiment with cooking their own seafood at home. Many were surprised to find that it wasn’t as difficult as they thought and have continued to prepare seafood at home, said Belle. Though restaurant consumption of seafood is also expected to make a comeback this year.

“Maine is uniquely positioned to meet the increased demand for fresh seafood        in the U.S.,” Belle said. “Maine’s within a 24-hour truck drive of 130 million consumers and they are clamoring for fresh seafood!”

Maine is known for its clean water and high quality seafood, said Belle. Typically Maine’s mussel growers, oyster growers and salmon growers get paid anywhere from 10-20 percent more than anyone else in the marketplace because of that, he said. 

Number of Aquaculture Farms Is Increasing

In addition to clean water and our prime location, Belle said the steadily increasing number of aquaculture farms in Maine also enhances our state’s ability to meet the increased demand for seafood. He said that unlike beef and pork, which are produced within the U.S., more than 90 percent of seafood is imported. Developing more aquaculture farms will increase America’s ability to produce its own seafood and bring production back home.

“There really is not a better state, on the East Coast at least, that is better positioned to take advantage of the market opportunity,” said Belle. “What we need to do is get more farms in the water and grow more stuff because the demand for our products is off the charts.”

One thing that sets Maine apart from other states, in regards to aquaculture, said Belle, is its diversity. Maine has both water and land-based operations. He explained that, with land-based operations, a tank is constructed on land, water             is pumped into the tank, the environment is controlled and fish are fed and moni- tored.

According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension website, salmon, cod, oysters, mussels, clams, kelp, and ornamentals are currently produced by Maine’s aquaculture industry. The website states that technology is also being developed for sea urchins, halibut, sandworms and other valuable marine organisms.  

Four New Aquaculture Projects Proposed For Maine

Kingfish Maine, a Dutch company, plans to build a 6,000- to 8,000-ton capacity facility in Jonesboro to raise yellowtail fish (which are often used in sushi.) Their media representative Dianna Fletcher reported they have secured critical waterside permits and plan to break ground by early 2022.  

“Currently, Kingfish Maine is operating at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) in Franklin,” said Fletcher. “The Maine-based team is working with CCAR’s aquaculture business incubator program to build its yellowtail broodstock and scale for production at the Jonesport aquaculture facility.” 

Three other companies are in the process of getting permitted for land-based aquaculture projects in Bucksport (salmon), Belfast (salmon) and Waldoboro (American eels), Belle said. It’s projected that about one billion dollars will be invested in those projects during the next 5 to 10 years.

Kelp Farming

The owners of Nautical Farms in Machias chose to farm seaweed because they  wanted to create a business that “gave back to the planet.” Co-owner Morgan-Lea Fogg said they also wanted to be involved with a business that supports Maine’s working waterfront and communities. The business launched in 2017 and currently grows over 10,000 pounds of sugar kelp each year. They also grow Alaria (another type of brown algae). They sell direct-to-consumer on their website and in small stores throughout the U.S. 

According to Fogg, seaweed is “as nourishing and positively impactful for the environment as it is healthy for people and animals.” She added that kelp is used  in many products that people use every day.

“Most of us probably use a form of algae or seaweed daily without even knowing it,” said Fogg. “It’s often found in shampoos, soaps and everyday bath and beauty products. Further, not only can it be consumed by people as an additive or main ingredient in dishes, it’s also incredibly nutritious for animals. Kelp is often used  as fertilizer for gardens and farms. In recent years we’ve seen amazing implementations, like sustainable clothing materials, sustainable shoes, food packaging made from seaweeds and even seaweeds as biofuel.” 

One of the first steps in getting started in marine aquaculture, said Fogg, is leasing a site [on the ocean] through the Maine Department of Marine Resources. She said that, as farmers, they take a lot of pride in working alongside other marine vocations.

“Our goal isn’t to take up as much space as possible, making lobster fishing and other ways of life difficult,” said Fogg. “We want to work with other fishermen  and create a waterfront that has space for us all that provides diverse resources.”

In regards to actually growing kelp, Fogg said they practice what’s referred to as “3D ocean farming.” She said if one imagines a vertical garden, they’ve pretty much pictured an underwater kelp farm. She explained that they grow kelp on suspended lines which are anchored on either end by large moorings and buoys. The kelp, she said, is seeded on the suspended line between the moorings and grows downward. As the kelp grows and reaches for sunlight, they add small weights to the line to keep it from reaching the surface, said Fogg. All of the kelp they grow take 5 to 6 months to reach maturity. They plant around November each year and harvest around May. 

Fogg encourages people to step outside of their comfort zone and try seaweed products. She said that seaweed is very nutritious.

“Integrating a sustainable new food like seaweed doesn’t have to be intimidating,” said Fogg. “It can be sprinkled on nearly anything for an extra boost of salty, savory flavor and it’s a great (and easy) way to get essential vitamins and minerals.” 

Opportunity Knocking At the Door

According to Belle, many people who are involved in aquaculture are younger than commercial fishermen. He said that aquaculture is a great opportunity for the sons and daughters of commercial fishermen who want to operate a business on the waterfront. He said that it’s also a great opportunity for commercial fishermen to supplement their income because some of the products can be farmed during their off season. He said that oysters take 2 to 3 years to mature and don’t require tending every day.

The Island Institute is one of several entities who offer an aquaculture business development program. Their senior community development officer Sam Belknap said their program has “created a cohort of fishermen and women, and those that worked on or near the water, that is now able to sustain itself.” He said that participants share knowledge and practices with one another and actively engage and teach those who are interested in starting an aquaculture business. He added that existing businesses have already been contributing $3-4 million to the state’s blue economy.

“Aquaculture represents an amazing economic development opportunity for our state and great diversification opportunity for those engaged in heritage fisheries,” said Belknap. “The fact that all of our participants were, or are still, commercial fishermen or from fishing families, highlights the willingness of leaders within the fishing sector to connect their history and experience on the water to new ways of making a living and sustaining the coast’s cultural connection to the water.”

See this Section as it appeared in print here