Missing from the ongoing conversation we Mainers are having about the proposed development of large-scale aquaculture projects in our state is an acknowledgment of the cascading benefits these projects would bring with them.

Beyond the impact of the fish they would produce, these farms would create jobs at multiple levels of our local workforce. They would promote growth in hatcheries, feed production, processing, waste reutilization, transportation, supplies, machinery, financial services and other industries.

For this and other reasons, we should welcome the aquaculture industry’s proposed investments in our state. If we are intentional and strategic, we can make Maine a hub of aquaculture production while adhering to the highest environmental and global sustainability standards.

Our Maine communities are not alone in the public discussions we are having about the future of aquaculture. Conversations like the ones in Belfast and Brunswick are occurring throughout rural areas of our coastal world. I just spent six months in Sweden, Iceland and Norway. In nearly every rural area I went, aquaculture is being viewed as part of a more sustainable economic future. In Maine, we have opportunities to transform our coastal communities into vibrant international centers of ocean farming systems excellence. In so doing, we can make them much more than seasonal tourist destinations. We can create jobs for those holding all levels of technical and college education.

I am sympathetic to, and believe we should take seriously, the concerns of our friends living in coastal communities. Aquaculture is a new concept to many. Few know about the wide diversity of jobs allied to aquaculture production, or about the local and global benefits of eating sustainably farmed seafood. Like many Mainers, I am proud to reside in a state that values the natural world and take seriously our responsibility to preserve Maine’s many wonders. And it is true that all food systems have social and ecological impacts. But Mainers must understand that the types of recirculating aquaculture systems proposed for Maine are rapidly evolving and the industry is routinely adopting technological, transportation and market advances that are dramatically decreasing aquaculture’s environmental footprint.

I believe Maine should invest in world-class education, research and outreach to become a global leader in aquaculture. We can make our state not only a center of sustainable aquaculture production but also a center of sustainable aquaculture value and expertise, one that localizes the value chain of the projects we attract.

We should emulate the best standards available and embrace the guidance given by international organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Global Aquaculture Alliance and the Aquaculture Certification Council, which reflect the high standards we need and possess the global influence to move Maine aquaculture forward to international prominence.

At the University of New England, we are playing our part by developing real-world marine aquaculture farms and a land-based recirculating training facility, and offering traditional degree programs in marine biology, as well as programs in aquaculture, marine entrepreneurship and ocean food systems. We are also connecting partners from across the North Atlantic to draw from each other’s knowledge and collaborate.

To grasp the scope of Maine’s present opportunity, we need look no farther than to Charlotte County, New Brunswick. Aquaculture has transformed this rural community marked by high unemployment and low income. Salmon aquaculture now accounts for 26 percent of its employment income, having stimulated growth far beyond production alone. About 100 aquaculture service companies now operate in St. George, supplying goods and services like processing, nets, maintenance, transportation, packaging and equipment.

This is an important time for Maine. Companies in a burgeoning industry see our state as ideal for their operations. In making our communities hospitable to them and developing projects in environmentally sustainable ways, we can maximize the local value chains they create.

At the same time, we can capitalize on a tremendous branding opportunity. Think of “Vermont maple syrup” or “Idaho potatoes,” and the contributions they make to their states’ images. We are fortunate to already possess signature products like “Maine blueberries” and “Maine lobster.” Now, we can add to our portfolio by defining Maine as a state on the cutting edge of the aquaculture industry.

“Maine salmon,” “Maine oysters” and “Maine sushi” have a nice ring to them, don’t they?

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