Growing-Out: Expanding Perspectives of Aquaculture in Downeast Maine

This is the second post from COA’s Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class from Spring 2019.

By Indigo Woods and Aliza Leit

Throughout this spring term, we have looked at the aquaculture industry in Maine as part of our Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class taught by Chris Petersen and Natalie Springuel. We are going to share stories from our experiences visiting four different farms and talking with aquaculturists. We found that aquaculture ranges from small to large-scale operations along the coast of Maine, there are a variety of different practices and species grown, and that each individual we talked to has unique motivations for having an aquaculture business. In conjunction with one another, all of these things create an array of perspectives on the industry, even when just focusing on the aquaculture company owners’ side of the story.

Above: Pictures from 3 of the 4 aquaculture sites we discuss here, Top: Bar Harbor Oyster Co. in Frenchman Bay. Bar Harbor Oyster Company Oyster pens float on top of the water and are flipped occasionally. ([Source: https://www.barharboroyster.com/gallery-1]; :Lower left: A line from Springtide Seaweed with kelp growing on it in upper Frenchman Bay; Lower right: A salmon pen from Cooke Aquaculture in Eastport.

On May 3rd, a cloudy Friday afternoon, our class stepped on to RV Osprey at the COA dock to take a twenty-minute boat ride to Bar Harbor Oyster Company. This would be our first look at aquaculture as a rapidly changing industry in Maine. After climbing aboard RV Osprey, Joanna Fogg, co-owner of Bar Harbor Oyster Company, dumped a cage of their “Bar Harbor Blonde” American oysters on the deck of our boat––commenting on their small, yet meaty character––we quickly became aware of the constraints to having a small shellfish aquaculture business. Businesses like these have to balance their effort between both farming and marketing strategies. We learned about the entire process from getting seed from Muscongus Bay Aquaculture to selling their oysters to restaurants on Mount Desert Island with a local food focus. Joanna explained how, because these oysters filter feed in the water column, the company does not need to invest in oyster feed or fear excess nutrient inputs. She also commented on the capital and time constraints to reach their goal of producing half a million oysters sometime in the near future, hoping that volume would allow them to accept the numerous orders they are getting in the growing market. Joanna spends a lot of time communicating with other farms and educating people about the positive attributes of shellfish aquaculture, hoping that “a rising tide will raise all ships.” She also likes the freedom of being her own boss and maintaining a connection to the waterfront, as she is a Mount Desert Island (MDI) native who spent years crewing and cooking on yachts after graduating from COA. It was this strong connection to the MDI working waterfront that brought Joanna and her husband, Jesse, to settle down and create their livelihoods in Frenchman Bay. Joanna is a hardworking aquaculturist, mother, business woman, and community member; she represents only one of three diverse oyster aquaculture farms in Frenchman Bay.

Above: Joanna Fogg discusses sea stars, a challenging predation on her oysters. They can slip into the cages as juveniles and then feast on the oysters as they grow, significantly decreasing the yield (left).

Our next stop on this boat trip was Springtide Seaweed, a 35-acre farm in Sorrento run by Sarah Redmond. As the RV Osprey approached Sarah’s vessel, the wind swiftly picked up and the waves began to rock both vessels. After tactful maneuvering to bring the boats’ hulls alongside each other, Sarah climbed aboard the RV Osprey to introduce herself inside the warmth of the cabin. Sarah Redmond explained that she was previously a gardener, and then decided to grow plants in the water, seeing seaweed as “an incredible resource that you can do almost anything with.” This represents a common argument that aquaculture is a more viable way to grow food as the amount of arable land declines. Similar to Bar Harbor Oyster Company, Sarah acknowledges the difficulty with finding sufficient capital for her business. She is often out all alone in the elements–an experience she finds quite meaningful–cutting copious amounts kelp off the ropes; seaweed is a labor of love for Sarah, and her tenacity and energy proves it.

Unfortunately, due to rigorous tending to in the winter months and the possibility of biofouling in the late spring, she leaves a quarter or half of what she has grown on the lines due to the lack of time and labor needed to harvest it. Seaweed is much newer aquaculture industry in Maine compared to hundred or thousand-year-old industries in other parts of the world, and so it has a smaller customer base compared to the more established shellfish or salmon operations. Sarah shared bags full of her fresh kelp as well as her hopes for the future of the industry. She wants the industry to expand so that more people are able to appreciate the nutritious and purifying properties of kelp, as well as provide diversified livelihoods for coastal community. She expressed that her biggest concern for aquaculture in Maine is private ownership of the ocean; as soon as it gets consolidated, it won’t be so unique. Sarah hopes that kelp will contribute to communities economic and social well-being, by staying individually owned; which may act as a protection mechanism from industrial-scale operations coming in and consolidating local businesses, as in the case of salmon aquaculture (more on that soon).

Above: Sarah Redmond approaching the RV Osprey in her boat, and showing a piece of sugar kelp (right).  [Photo credit: Truth Muller]

Throughout this afternoon on the boat, the complexities of aquaculture as a developing industry became more and more apparent. It is both a way to maintain a connection to the working waterfront and the water and an attempt to grow food more sustainably, attracting people from diverse backgrounds. However, it does not exist in a vacuum; wild fisheries, cruise ships, recreational purposes are all other activities tied to the same body of water. Therefore, there are varying perspective about aquaculture.

In addition to our class aquaculture boat trip, the two of us have had the opportunity to engage with aquaculturists at their on-land processing facilities. Fiona de Koning, who we interviewed for an oral histories project for the course, touched on many of the social perceptions of aquaculture. Her background is slightly different than the other people we talked to, as she and her husband moved to Maine in 2005 from the Netherlands to expand their family-run bottom-culture mussel aquaculture business. Family tradition is the central component of their practices. At the same time, they are very conscious of how their business fits into the community and the multiple stakeholders in the aquaculture industry. While both the kelp and oyster aquaculture are grown near the surface of the water, either on ropes or in cages, bottom culture does not have any visible markers on the water, besides a few brightly colored buoys to mark where the commercial lease sits at the bottom. Acknowledging that each working waterfront stakeholder has different needs, struggles, and impacts, Fiona engages with work on committees such as the Executive Committee for Frenchman Bay Partners, Maine Shellfish and Aquaculture Advisory Councils, and the Bar Harbor Marine Resources Committee. As a small business owner, Fiona encourages strengthening the aquaculture sector in Maine by sharing knowledge with other independent aquaculturist.

Our final experience with Maine aquaculture came on May 18th, during our “Downeast Field Trip” when our class loaded onto Pier Pressure, a whale watch boat owned by Butch Harris. As we set off from the Eastport dock, the sun soaked our faces and wind swirled around us on the boat. We were also accompanied by Chris Bartlett, who has close connections to Eastport’s working waterfront, as a Marine Extension Associate for the University of Maine’s Sea Grant. Chris introduced us to Butch, and gave us background on the salmon aquaculture pens that we were fast approaching. The eighteen net pens located near Eastport are owned by Cooke Aquaculture, a New Brunswick, Canada, based international salmon aquaculture corporation, which is also the only current salmon aquaculture firm in Maine. Salmon aquaculture is technical with a precise grow-out environment. Plastic tubes are stretched across the water from a floating building that stores feed to each pen; feed is regulated based on monitored fish activity to ensure they are not overfeeding them. The net-pens and tubes make this form of aquaculture much more visible than the operations we saw in Frenchman Bay. There are strict regulations on waste inputs, net pen structural integrity, and disease control/prevention. Based on these needs, this form of aquaculture requires a great amount of capital and time to properly maintain–even more than other aquaculture businesses do. According to the Executive Director at the Sunrise County Economic Council, Charles Rudelitch, these attributes made salmon aquaculture along the coast of Maine more susceptible to monopolization. There are many voices and stories that can reflect on the transition from small family run farms to the now corporate owned farms with each one having their own unique reasons. Butch’s family once ran a salmon farm, but after that family business closed, he went on to diversify his livelihood through the fishing and tourism sectors.

eastport-cooke-aquaculture

Above: A row of cages at one of Cooke Aquaculture’s three lease sites off of Eastport, ME. This one has 18 pens. Nets are to keep birds and seals from getting to the fish and are changed every six months to prohibit biofouling. Viewing the pens from Butch Harris’ boat Pier Pressure. [Photo credit: Truth Muller]

Our experiences with oyster, mussel, seaweed, and salmon aquaculture systems throughout the term provided us with a diverse array of perspectives to incorporate into our own views of aquaculture. Following each visit, our classmates dove into intense discussion regarding each form of aquaculture. Our peers were inspired by new concepts of protein growth, disheartened by the need for immense capital, and intrigued by the industrialization of aquaculture. Looking toward the future of aquaculture, there will have to be spaces for people who have differing perspectives of aquaculture to engage and have conversations.

We would like to thank all of the people who took their time to talk with us about aquaculture and those who welcomed us to their farms!

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About marinestudiesatcoa

Chris is a professor of marine ecology and policy at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine
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