It started with Atlantic salmon hatcheries in the late 1800s, and today aquaculture is one of Maine’s best stories, growing rapidly and helping us transition from an economy dependent on wild fish to one that grows those fish and other ocean products in pens.
If you’ve ever enjoyed mussels grown on those farms in the Damariscotta River, your mouth may be watering now like mine is! Those farms have recently added seaweed to their crops, something that has taken off as a food additive.
A lot of our farms were started by young people, what Sebastian Belle calls the “Blue Revolution,” kids eager to spend their lives outdoors, where they started with oysters. Today Maine has more than 60 oyster farms.
I sat with Sebastian, the executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, for nearly two hours recently as he told me fascinating stories about this amazing industry. Sebastian worked in the aquaculture industry in Norway for 10 years, grew salmon in Maine, and has spent his career working in all aspects of aquaculture, giving him a great understanding of the industry he now represents.
I have one aquaculture story of my own. One year, the federal government ordered Maine’s aquaculture industry to rid itself of the Atlantic salmon it was growing, fearing they would escape and breed with the wild salmon the feds have been working — unsuccessfully — to restore to Maine’s rivers for decades.
Initially the salmon were going to be killed and buried in a landfill. But then I got an invitation to fish for them, in the pens, and it didn’t take long to say yes!
I took several trips to the pens, with friends, standing on the outer rim of the pens and fishing for those salmon. Well, it wasn’t really fishing, it was catching. I can’t even begin to explain the excitement of seeing a 35-pound salmon rising up out of the depths of the pen to grab my lure.
Some of my friends made fun of this until I took them along, and then they begged to return. I brought home coolers full of salmon and shared the filets with family, friends and neighbors. And later, the remaining salmon were given to our Native Americans, so none were wasted. The company even hosted a few paying guests, anglers who traveled here from out of state, spent lots of money, and enjoyed catching those fish.
Today, a different strain of salmon, provided by the government, is being grown in vastly improved pens, with lots of scrutiny to assure they don’t escape. It took three years of hard work to revive the salmon industry, with leadership from folks including Des FitzGerald of Duck Trap Farms as well as our environmental organizations, a “good example of how to work together,” notes Sebastian.
There are many good stories about enterprising folks who built this successful industry in Maine. Glenn Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture would be one. He started with a single cage and now is one of the largest aquaculture businesses in the world. His family, which reaches into New Brunswick, “took a leap of faith,” says Sebastian, buying leases and a processing plant in Machiasport. “They deserve great credit,” he said.
I was particularly fascinated by the new management system they’ve created, called “all in, all out.” They stock all their salmon pens one year, harvest the fish in two years, and leave the pens empty the year after, which reduces the ability of pathogens to attack the fishery.
Glenn’s beautiful salmon run 10 to 12 pounds and he’s started branding them as “Maine salmon,” which allows him to charge a higher price. When he raised the price for his “Maine salmon,” sales actually increased!
At Hannaford, the price for his salmon went up $3 per pound, while his competitors lowered their price by $1 per pound, and still his sales increased. “We have a brand that works,” said Sebastian.
Maine mussels and oysters now claim a price 20 percent higher than anyone else’s. Our cold, clean water and longer shelf life delivers higher-quality products, and people are willing to pay for that.
One of the best parts of this story is how Maine commercial fishermen and their kids who couldn’t get commercial fishing permits started farming their ocean products with great success. Everything is going in the right direction for us, including the “foodie” movement and development of new products, especially in seaweed. We now have seven farms growing seaweed.
Ocean Approved in Portland is supplying dried seaweed to health food stores and created a kelp pasta that is gluten free. Coming soon: a kelp cube for milkshakes and smoothies. “Kelp is the new kale,” Sebastian told me.
Now, aren’t you hungry?