Nov. 7—Joanna Fogg, perched at the prow of her boat, looks out at the 350 oyster cages rocking in the Mount Desert Narrows that make up the bulk of Bar Harbor Oyster Co., the business that she and her husband, Jesse, have spent the past seven years building from the ground up.
The black plastic floats, spread across about 22 acres, may not look like much to some — and may even be an eyesore to others — but Fogg hopes that one day, people will see them as beautiful.
Her farm may not conjure the same quintessential working waterfront images as a lobster boat and brightly colored buoy, Fogg said, but she thinks it should hold the same meaning: "This is what it looks like to feed people."
And feed people she does.
Even with a projected harvest of about 100,000 oysters this year, Fogg can't keep up with the demand of Bar Harbor, let alone a state that is rapidly growing its brand as a premier destination for farm-grown seafood.
Fogg's business is just one of the hundreds of Maine sea farms contributing to the state's successful aquaculture industry, selling oysters, mussels, seaweed and salmon as fast as they can be grown. The practice has been around for thousands of years, but only in the past few has it become a vital economic engine for the state.
But as more farms have cropped up, so have coalitions and interest groups concerned about Maine's coastline being overrun by industrial-size operations that pollute the state's pristine waters and take valuable bottom from Maine's iconic, nearly half-billion-dollar lobster industry.
In 2019, the last year of "normal" harvest and value data before the pandemic, Maine's aquaculture industry had an estimated direct economic impact of $88.4 million and employed an estimated 622 employees — a nearly 15 percent increase in value over three years, according to data from the 2016 Maine Aquaculture Economic Impact Report from the University of Maine's Aquaculture Research Institute.
By next year, the industry is expected to employ around 880 workers across production and over 1,600 across the supply chain. By 2030, employment is projected to exceed 1,000 direct workers and over 2,000 across the supply chain.
Maine characterizes its lease sites in three ways. Experimental leases are smaller in size (up to 4 acres) and shorter in duration (up to three years), and cannot be renewed unless they are for scientific purposes, while "standard" leases are larger (up to 100 acres), longer in duration (up to 20 years), and can be renewed, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Limited purpose aquaculture sites, or LPAs, are only one year in duration but can be renewed at the end of each year.
There are about 178 active aquaculture leases, 46 leases under review and 762 small LPA sites in Maine, according to data from the Department of Marine Resources.
As technology advances and its popularity grows, it seems like the sky's the limit for what is, despite its ancient roots, a relatively young industry. But not everyone in Maine is sold on aquaculture.
AQUACULTURE IN MAINE
At its core, "aquaculture" simply refers to growing plants or animals in water, whether the farm is located on land or in salt or fresh water, according to Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.
The practice is thought to have started with carp farming in China as far back as 2000 B.C., according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, but it didn't gain worldwide traction until much later, between 1700 and 1900 A.D.
However, aquaculture as it is practiced today didn't get underway until around 1970, when farmers began to work with more species.
Today, Maine grows about 24 species, but Belle said the "big three" are salmon, oysters and mussels, with salmon capturing more of the gross revenue but oysters holding more lease sites.
Beyond food, aquaculture also produces sport fish, baitfish, ornamental or aquarium fish, sea vegetables, research animals and fish eggs, and can be used in stock restoration, in which hatchery fish and shellfish are released into the wild to help rebuild wild populations or coastal habitats such as oyster reefs.
The aquaculture sector in Maine has been growing by roughly 2 percent per year for the past decade, and Belle expects that growth rate to increase — possibly even double — in the next few years.
Aquaculture first really hit Maine in the 1970s or '80s, Belle said, growing from virtually no acres of farms to about 600 and then reaching a plateau for about 15 years. Over the past few decades, it has increased to nearly 1700 acres of farmed ocean, and if recent years are any indication, that number will just keep going up.
"We cannot land enough, we cannot grow enough because the Maine brand is so well-respected," Belle said.
There is an increased demand, particularly among young people, for healthy, locally grown, sustainable protein, he said.
"The demand is insane," Belle said, noting that seafood saw a 25 percent to 35 percent boost in customer sales during the pandemic, when people were no longer able to eat out at restaurants. "If we can hold that, the demand will be even stronger."
Gov. Janet Mills also has noted the increase in demand.
In her 10-year economic development plan, Mills includes the importance of pursuing sustainable fishing opportunities such as aquaculture "to complement traditional fishing and meet the growing demand for a traceable food supply that is changing the way we fish and farm."
EXPANSION BREEDS CONTROVERSY
As the industry grows in Maine, so do the chances of it generating controversy.
Large-scale aquaculture farms, particularly in-water finfish farms, have been criticized for years because of their high risks for ocean pollution from nutrient and effluent buildup, possible negative impacts on the wild fish population and the potential impact on the fish themselves (and therefore consumers) from crowding, antibiotics and disease.
Bivalve aquaculture (mussels, oysters and scallops) and kelp or marine algae farming are considered more environmentally beneficial, because they don't require fresh water or fertilizers, don't need to be fed, and, in the case of bivalves, filter the water.
However, according to Belle, while salmon used to be the Big Bad Wolf of aquaculture, raising the most opposition, that is no longer the case.
In 2018, a proposed 40-acre lease for Mere Point Oyster Co. on Brunswick's Maquoit Bay spurred over a year of debate, hours of hearings and at least one lawsuit. Opponents spoke out about conflicting uses of the bay, unknown but potentially negative environmental impacts and the potential infringement on valuable lobstering grounds.
Belle doesn't buy it.
"Most times, the objections come from people who don't want to look at, hear or smell a commercial working waterfront," he said. "(But since) there is no way under the existing system for somebody to object to the impacts on viewscape ... they're hiring well-paid public relations consultants and enlisting the commercial fishing community."
The lease, whittled down to 28 acres by owners Doug Niven and Dan Devereaux, was ultimately approved in 2019, but the opponents aren't giving up their fight against large-scale aquaculture.
One group, previously known as Save Maquoit Bay and now known as the Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage Foundation, has been particularly vocal about its concerns over what it's called "industrial aquaculture" — large leases (especially those over 30 acres) owned by out-of-state or international companies striving to maximize profits at the expense of the ocean.
According to executive director Crystal Canney, the state's regulations, which she believes are too relaxed, "have set the table for industrial aquaculture."
A single person can lease up to 1,000 acres of the ocean (100 acres per lease for up to 10 leases) for 100 years and can transfer the lease without a public hearing, she noted, and with a 95 percent lease approval rate, she worries Maine is setting itself up for failure.
The group's current battle is against a proposed 110-acre penned salmon fishery in Frenchman Bay.
Backed by Norwegian investor Mikael Roenes, the American Aquafarms proposal includes 30 150-foot salmon pens that would eventually produce about 30,000 metric tons, or 66 million pounds, of fish. The project would be on two sites, one encompassing 56 acres and the other taking up 60 acres.
Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage, along with Frenchman Bay United, an umbrella organization of five different groups opposing the plan, worry that the farm will overtake valuable lobstering grounds while polluting the pristine waters.
A die-off of over 100,000 salmon at a Cooke Aquaculture site in August has prompted more opposition and questions surrounding the proposal.
Cooke Aquaculture is currently the only salmon farming operation in the state and has over 600 acres of lease sites along the coast.
Protect Maine and Frenchman Bay United said in a news release in September that the die-off is "just another example of how industrial-scale in-water fish farms threaten the environmental and economic health of coastal areas."
"At every turn, industrial-scale aquaculture is given the benefit of the doubt, whereas lobstermen and fishermen have their feet held to the fire," Canney said in the release. "We need evidence that Maine's oversight agencies are putting the health of our waters first, and not turning a blind eye to industrial-scale aquaculture damaging our oceans.
A NEED FOR MORE PLANNING
Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage has called for a statewide conversation with regulators and stakeholders to create a plan for the future of aquaculture growth in Maine. They're pushing for lease size and length limits and a hearing for lease transfers, among other changes.
"The state hasn't done its homework," Canney said. "Leases are exploding and (the state is approving them) willy-nilly because the governor has a 10-year strategic plan that promotes aquaculture at any cost."
The group says it isn't against all aquaculture in Maine.
In fact, the small, owner-operated model, especially for farms under 10 or 20 acres, is one the group supports, Canney said. However, she said the more acres a site takes up, the more lobstering grounds are lost, the more other uses for the area disappear and the more risks there are for the environment.
"I do not think that getting greedy and having hundreds of acres is something that's good for Maine," Canney said.
Fogg, of Bar Harbor Oyster, has a different mindset.
"I was definitely in the school of thought originally that small, owner-operated is always the best way to go," she said. "(But) the longer I'm involved in it, the more I understand that big isn't always bad and that big is relative. I want to be big enough that I can afford a couple of year-round employees who maybe get benefits. Realistically, two of these oyster strings and one boat is not going to do that. It's not even going to afford us health insurance."
Alex de Köning, one of the owners of Acadia Aquafarms, the state's largest mussel grower, said the state's regulatory process is thorough enough as it is. It takes years to get through the lease approval process, which can help weed out the bad applications, he said. But that approval time, coupled with the few years it takes to grow product to market size, also requires businesses to start big.
To help minimize that time, sometimes growers will start out with LPAs to begin growing a small operation and then expand. This can contribute to the impression that aquaculture is exploding, de Köning said.
According to Jeff Nichols, spokesperson for the Department of Marine Resources, the number of new applications has more than tripled in the past five years, going from 13 in 2015 to 42 in 2020. During that time, the number of new leases issued per year increased at a similar rate, jumping from seven in 2015 to 20 in in 2020. Total acreage leased in the state increased by about 300 acres during that five-year span.
However, Nichols said, "It's important to note that the total footprint of leases remains relatively low at approximately 1,600 acres statewide, compared to the 3.5 million acres of total state waters."
That's because the LPA sites are small, designed for people just starting out or who only want to operate on a very small scale.
Overall, the number of active leases per year has remained fairly constant, Nichols added.
A GLOBAL OPPORTUNITY
Aquaculture is growing even faster globally than it is in Maine.
According to a 2020 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report on the state of the world's fisheries and aquaculture, global aquaculture production rose 527 percent between 1990 and 2018, compared with a 14 percent increase in wild catch fisheries' production in the same period.
Aquaculture production is projected to reach 109 million tons in 2030, a 32 percent increase from 2018.
According to the University of Maine Aquaculture Research Institute's economic impact report, the majority (62 percent) of food fish will be produced by aquaculture by 2030.
The United States is the third-largest market for seafood but ranks 15th in aquaculture production. Asian markets have so far dominated the space, with an 89 percent share over the past 2o years, according to the United Nations.
Seafood is the most valuable traded food commodity, and the United States imports over 90 percent of its seafood.
Some enterprising Mainers hope to see that start to change, and according to Belle, the state is uniquely positioned to make that happen.
"We have amazing environmental conditions," he said. "We have very clean water, a lot of coastline and we still have a working waterfront ... We have a long tradition in Maine of going down to the water to make a living, (and) there are a lot of people who are experimenting with it to diversify their income base."
Factor in organizations such as the Aquaculture Research Institute, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, UMaine's Darling Marine Center, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Downeast Institute and others, and Maine has the best research infrastructure for cold-water aquaculture in America, he said.
With a clean and extensive coastline and ample opportunity for research, Maine colleges and industry partners are now preparing the workforce that will be needed to meet the demand.
Aquaculture is multidisciplinary, Belle said, and employers are looking for workers with skills ranging from a good handle on math and science to traditional husbandry and farming practices.
Last month, the Maine Aquaculture Association released a new set of occupational standards for the industry — the first of its kind to set the training needs and standards for the industry — for use in new aquaculture training programs in several college programs throughout the state.
Belle expects that these training programs will attract people from other states and countries, putting "Maine on the map for being a center for excellence."
Last year, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute also launched an online portal, "The Maine Aquaculturist," a centralized resource hub to help aquaculture farmers start or maintain their operations.
EXPERIMENTS WITH NEW SPECIES
According to the Department of Marine Resources, in Maine there are 21 active lease sites for salmon — all owned by Cooke Aquaculture, 36 lease sites for mussels and 93 for oysters. Several businesses, such as Cooke, are licensed on multiple sites for multiple species.
In 2019, Maine aquaculturists harvested about 2.3 million pounds of mussels, valued at just over $4 million, and 13.9 million pounds of oysters, valued at about $9.7 million. Data for salmon was not immediately available.
The "big three" are aquaculture's main breadwinners, but many aquaculturists are experimenting with new and emerging techniques to farm species — such as seaweed, eels and scallops — that they believe have enough market potential to disrupt that hierarchy.
For example, seaweed aquaculture, which didn't exist in Maine (or the United States) until 2009, harvested just 14,500 pounds in 2015, according to data from the Department of Marine Resources. An estimated value was not available.
By 2018, that figure had increased to 53,500 pounds, valued at $37,897.
Just two years later, in 2020, Maine harvested over 497,000 pounds, valued at $301,285.
Briana Warner, president and CEO of Atlantic Sea Farms, the state's first kelp farm and now its largest seaweed supplier and processor, expects that number to double next year.
That's "not even a blip" compared with what the market can do, Warner said. The United States imports 98 percent of its seaweed, the majority of which is produced in Asia and generally arrives dehydrated for sushi.
The company now partners with about two dozen fishermen and women up and down the Maine coast. Atlantic Sea Farms gets the seeds started in its nursery and gives the seedlings to fishermen, primarily lobster fishermen, to grow on lines in the offseason.
Fishermen then harvest the seaweed, using the same equipment needed for lobstering, and sell the harvested seaweed back to Atlantic Sea Farms, which produces kelp-based products for sale online, in grocery stores and for use by some restaurant chains.
The goal, Warner said, is for kelp farming to become a viable, environmentally friendly supplemental — or one day even primary — income source for Maine fishermen, especially as the looming threat of climate change casts a shadow over the Maine lobster industry.
"We are completely dependent on lobster monoculture," she said. "There are few diversification opportunities on the water. ... Without diversification, we are uniquely vulnerable in a way we've never been before."
Warner isn't the only one who sees potential in an aquaculture segment traditionally dominated by Asian farms.
Earlier this year, American Unagi, an eel aquaculture company, started construction on a $10 million, 27,000-square-foot facility in Waldoboro.
The new building will expand the company's production to over 500,000 pounds, or about 5 percent of the U.S. eel market, according to owner Sara Rademaker.
Maine is one of two states that harvest glass eels, also known as elvers, as they find their way to rivers from their ocean spawning areas.
Once the elvers are harvested, they're usually shipped to Asian countries such as Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea, where they are reared to adult size for the food fish market. Many are then shipped back to the U.S. to be used in sushi.
Rademaker isn't out to replace Maine's elver fishery, which, in 2019, was the state's second-most valuable, with landings valued at $20.1 million for 9,750 pounds. Landings remained about the same in 2020, but took a substantial hit in value because of the pandemic.
Instead, she works with the fishery, purchasing the toothpick-size, translucent eels from the local harvesters, growing them to market size in American Unagi's land-based facility and then selling them to wholesalers or restaurants.
"As this aquaculture industry grows in Maine, we're almost this hybrid," Rademaker said, calling it "a nice representation of how we can connect aquaculture (to the wild harvest fishery) in a way that fits. ... It made sense to snap this onto the economy to help diversify something that Maine's already really good at."