UM President Kennedy, Gov. Baldacci, U.S. Rep. Michaud,  and others, listen to information about the salmon program during a tour of the new aquaculture center in Franklin, Maine. Photo by Ramona du Houx

August/September 2008

Article by Ramona du Houx

The United States is the second largest consumer of seafood in the world, yet it ranks tenth in aquaculture production. Seafood is the third largest portion of our national trade deficit, behind petroleum and automobiles. In 2004 the United States had to import over $11 billion of seafood to meet demand, and the market continues to grow.

Why, you may ask, with all our technology, expertise, and with researchers available isn’t the United States leading this industry and exporting fish? That is what we hope to do, and some of the research that is helping America get there from here is being done here, in Maine.

“We will become leaders in aquaculture,” said the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service Administrator Edward Knipling at the opening ceremony for the National Cold Water Marine Aquaculture Resource Center in Franklin. “Today represents a nearly ten-year successful effort in the Northeast to help address seafood needs in this country, which has become increasingly challenging in the face of global competition. This is a tremendous opportunity, and we have great expectations.”

After a few years of decline in the fish farming industry in Maine, “the tide has turned,” stated Sebastian Belle, president of the Maine Aquaculture association, also during the opening celebrations of NCWMARC, late last May. “Now, Maine will one day be as renowned for salmon as it is for lobster.”

Belle has firsthand experience with the industry. While at UMO, Belle worked his way through college on lobster fishing boats. Years later, Belle served as a technical consultant on over 20 major commercial aquaculture ventures for investment groups from Europe and North and South America. Before returning to North America in 1989, Belle spent four years managing a commercial-scale aquaculture research and development foundation in Norway.

“Until now I have been frustrated with the lack of research and development infrastructure for fish farming in the United States compared to countries around the globe. What we are accomplishing here at NCWMARC will expand the sector, so that it is a renewable resource. We’ve never really had that in this country. We dreamt about this ten years ago, and now it is a reality.”

Set on 50 acres the 44,000-square-foot aquaculture center is one of five USDA aquaculture research centers nationally. Dedicated to research that will benefit the Atlantic salmon farming industry, the new facility is the only USDA center devoted to cold-water marine aquaculture.

The facility shares its site in Franklin with the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture, which has been farming several species of fish, including halibut and cod, since 1999.

Together, they form one of the largest and most important research centers of its kind in the world. In the near future, an additional research branch will open on the campus of UMO.

“We are at a watershed in this state. We are lucky to be where we are today — to have this kind of research infrastructure because of the federal investment, and the university investment. UMO’s proposed new aquaculture center is the next major step that will help ensure a more disease-resistant stock,” said Bell.

Maine’s aquaculture industry has been recovering over the past several years and is projected to surpass production from its highest levels of ten years ago.

“Aquaculture is a growing industry in Maine and accounts for more than 550 jobs statewide with about 225 of those located Downeast,” said Governor John Baldacci. “Aquaculture is growing by almost ten percent each year and now accounts for about thirty percent of all the seafood consumed. This facility represents a significant investment by the federal government and the State of Maine to make sure our domestic aquaculture farmers are better able to compete with global competition. It means we have better fish security and production — and that translates into better jobs and economic security for working waterfront communities.”

The governor first advocated for the project as a congressman nearly ten years ago.

“Expanding aquaculture has always been a goal of my administration,” said Baldacci.

Having the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture adjacent to NCWMAC and researchers working with the fish-farming industry, has produced results which can be linked directly to the industry’s growth in Maine.

“I’m proud of the UM research facilities here and at UMO and how they are helping our economy. This is the kind of collaboration that puts our industries on the cutting edge, while giving people opportunities for good-paying jobs,” said the governor. “This facility will make Maine a leader in the field of aquaculture.”

Congressman Mike Michaud agreed. “At a time of an amazing increase in growth of aquaculture production, the research that will be done here will help aquaculture farmers here in Maine and throughout the United States stay on the cutting edge of production practices and techniques,” said Michaud.

Having the only national coldwater marine research facility for salmon puts Maine on the map and fish farmers have taken note.

“I’m also encouraged by the industry’s recovery. We have a strong asset with companies like Cooke Aquaculture. By 2009 we expect as much fish in production as there was in our previous peak and that will continue to rise with Cooke’s plans to reopen their processing plant in Machias Port, next January.”

Cooke Aquaculture U.S.A. praised the research work that has already helped his company improve fish stocks so he understands the value a new research facility has for his industry.

“The NCWMAC is an important resource for our company and will help us build a strong, successful aquaculture sector in the state of Maine,” said Mike Cooke of Cooke Aquaculture, who purchased a failing fish farm in Machias in 2004. “Since we acquired Atlantic Salmon, we have invested $60 million in the aquaculture industry in Maine. We went from producing 300,000 fish in 2005 to three million fish per year in 2006. And we’re sustaining those numbers.”

Cooke Aquaculture has over 100 people employed in Maine at ten sites and three hatcheries, and the Canadian company is the largest employer in Eastport. Cooke Aquaculture has a five-year plan to produce 16,000 metric tons of fish in Maine using crop rotation and being environmentally responsible.

“We will be working closely with NCWMAC to ensure we have the best tasting, sustainable fish. This program proves that industry and government can partner together to build a healthy aquaculture sector in Maine,” said Cooke. “We’re excited at the possibilities.”

Inside the facility, there are rows of blue tanks of fish in various stages of growth.

The NCWMAC center is responsible for spawning and sustaining the Atlantic salmon species in a controlled laboratory setting. When fully grown, a few hundred fish, out of tens of thousands, will be kept to spawn the next generation of research. The majority of the farm-produced salmon will be distributed to area fish farmers.

For more than four years, Dr. William Wolters, who runs the facility with his team, has been researching genetic characteristics of Atlantic salmon and initiated a successful breeding program.

“The NCWMAC breeding program is designed for North Atlantic Salmon and North Atlantic breeding waters. The breeding program has already been successful yielding stronger stock,” said Dr. William Wolters. “It is cost competitive with the rest of the world and tailored for industry needs. The new facility, at UMO, will work on vaccines for disease. I’m excited that we are doing the cutting-edge research that will sustain Atlantic salmon, right here.”

As wild Atlantic salmon stocks have diminished and federal regulations have limited foreign stocking, more salmon farmers are relying on research facilities to keep up with increasing demand. Also, being able to raise fish successfully eases the pressures on traditional fishing that lead to stocks being depleted.

The waters off the western coast of America have been drastically over-fished, which last May prompted a ban of commercial and recreational fishing for salmon off the California coast and most of Oregon’s shores by the National Marine Fishery Service. It was the first time in 160 years that salmon fishing has been banned, leaving working waterfronts questioning their future.

The National Cold water Marine Aquaculture Resource Center’s research could prevent an unwanted event like that happening in Maine.

“Commercial traditional fishing coexists with fish farms in Maine, which helps ensure fish stocks. It works,” said Belle. “The people involved in this project have given the citizens in coastal communities a sustainable future. It’s a new way to make a living on the water while producing healthy, good, seafood for the country.”

“Aquaculture is preserving our working waterfronts and allowing a new generation of fisherman to get on the water,” said Baldacci. “It’s the way of the future, and Maine is leading it.”

Keeping working waterfronts productive is a major concern of state Senator Denis Damon. “Maine communities have a long tradition of harvesting healthy seafood from our clean, cool waters. Maine’s water farmers are helping preserve working waterfronts and communities linked to the sea,” said Damon. “Healthy ecosystems with high water quality and diverse habitats are key ingredients in our sustainably grown healthy seafood.”

The National Cold Water Marine Aquaculture Center will have 14 scientists and as many as 45 support personnel working collaboratively with others in Maine’s aquaculture industry once it is fully staffed.