In this October 2008 file photo, a salmon farmer makes his rounds near floating pens containing thousands of Atlantic salmon in Eastport. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

With several fish farms planned to open in Maine over the next few years, new research shows an unlikely union between the seafood and logging industries could help the environment and both of their bottom lines.

A study from earlier this year has raised the idea of using byproducts from Maine’s sawmills to grow yeast for fish food on fish farms. Gina Scott, an at-sea fishing monitor who conducted the study at the University of New England, found the strategy could save fish farmers money, cut back on fishmeal’s environmental impact and provide a new market for wood waste after the downturn of Maine’s paper mills.

One of the main ways fish farms feed their fish is fishmeal, a food that is often made with herring or menhaden. But the cost of the fish food has tripled in the past 20 years, sending farmers in search of other potential foods. It’s also in low supply and uses a high amount of the important forage fish to make it.

At the same time, the closure of several paper mills has cut down the market for forestry byproducts such as sawdust and woodchips.

To potentially solve both of these problems, Scott has suggested a “surf-and-turf mutualism,” where the aquaculture and logging industry can lean on each other.

Wood byproducts from sawmills could be sent to yeast makers, who would then grow yeast to be sold either directly to fish farms or to fishmeal producers. Using small amounts of this yeast in fishmeal recipes could cut down the use of forage fish by 29 percent, potentially helping wild fisheries that depend on herring and menhaden, according to the study.

The use of yeast could also reduce the amount of land and greenhouse gas emissions associated with growing proteins such as soy, another common ingredient in salmon feed.

On the economic end, the study concluded that the Maine wood yeast has the potential to cut the cost of a metric ton of fishmeal by 8 percent.

“The findings I think look really promising,” Scott said.

Sebastian Belle, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said the issue of fish feed is a huge barrier for growth in the industry.

“Feeding ingredients for aquaculture is probably the single largest bottleneck to increasing aquaculture globally,” he said. “There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars going into feed ingredients around the world.”

He thought the wood yeast idea had potential, though farmers are often hesitant to make changes unless there is a large body of research that shows the feed is sustainable and meets the nutritional needs of the fish and consumers on the other end of the food chain.

Cooke Aquaculture is currently the only commercial salmon farm operator in Maine, though several others are in the development pipeline. Whole Oceans is slowly moving on construction at a former paper mill site in Bucksport; Nordic Aquafarms acquired land in Belfast earlier this year; and Kingfish Maine is poised to get local approvals for a yellowtail farm in Jonesport from local officials last week.

American Aquafarms wants to grow salmon in Frenchman Bay off Bar Harbor, but currently doesn’t have an application with the state after the company’s initial bid was rejected earlier this year.

Dana Doran, the executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, a logging industry group, hadn’t heard of the idea but at first blush he thought it could help produce more business.

“Any new market that could take up any residuals or wood, we’re certainly interested,” he said.

Scott sought out industry input for her study and found fish farmers, feed producers and forestry companies were open to the idea. Aside from being potentially cheaper and better for the environment, some farmers thought it could show the industry is sustainable and help cultivate warmer feelings for finfish aquaculture in Maine, which at times has received a chilly reception in the Pine Tree State.

There were some concerns over the prospect though.

While the yeast is a good substitute for protein, it lacks the Omega-3 fatty acids that come from forage fish.

Sawmill representatives interviewed by Scott wanted to see some assurances that it would be economically worthwhile and there would be a regular demand for wood byproducts. Fish farmers were interested in seeing more studies into the alternative to ensure there were no major downsides to its use in fish feed.

But Scott sees all this as a good first step that could bolster two of Maine’s iconic industries.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” she said. “This will hopefully encourage further interest.”