Growing shellfish and seaweed along the coast of Maine is becoming more popular. Dana Morse, a marine extension associate for Maine Sea Grant who focuses on shellfish aquaculture, believes the public has had a change of heart on what was a controversial activity.

“The overall understanding and acceptance generally of aquaculture and farm-raised seafood has improved,” he says. “There is much better recognition of what is really going on in the aquaculture industry and the benefits it can bring—like the ecosystem [boost that comes] from growing shellfish and seaweed.”

So how big is aquaculture as an industry in the state? There are three components: shellfish, seaweed, and finfish, all in different states of market development and maturity as an enterprise. Growing shellfish and seaweed have generated enthusiasm recently.

According to Department of Marine Resources data compiled last winter, there are 74 molluscan (oysters and mussels) shellfish leases (totaling 608 acres) and three seaweed leases (totaling 6.92 acres). However, there are also 148 limited purpose leases, which are annual licenses for small plots up to 400 square feet. According to Morse’s rough tally, there are 16-17 full time or larger oyster companies in the state, about 15 or so smaller (not full time), but established oyster companies, and at least another 20 just starting out.

Sarah Redmond, another marine extension associate for Maine Sea Grant, specializes in seaweed aquaculture, and says enthusiasm for seaweed farming also is growing. For the last three years, supported by a grant from the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, Redmond and her colleagues have been working on a pilot project with shellfish farmers to get them to diversify by also raising seaweed. The idea was to figure out how the structure of the gear and the seasonality would work for blending seaweed and shellfish farming.

Four or five shellfish operations participated each winter, most for multiple years in a row. Conveniently, the sugar kelp season is from fall to spring, which tends to be off-season for fishermen in Maine.

From Casco Bay all the way Downeast, there are a handful of new, smaller commercial operations that are getting up and running. Some are working on how to piece together a rotation of crops to ensure a year round growing season.

“The seaweed aquaculture sector has a lot of energy behind it,” Morse says, “and to date, has had some success in growing and selling seaweed, but a lot more remains to be done on product development and the economics of selling kelp if you want to be a grower. Market development is really the challenge here,” he said.

Redmond reports that kelp farming is in its fifth year of in Maine. Ocean Approved in Casco Bay was the first commercial farm growing kelp in the country.

“People who have been able to try it out the first year get hooked and want to continue to work on to see what they can get,” she said. “Come harvest season, we’re all working together to figure out what the product will be and how to get it to consumers.”

So far, the collaboration has involved different approaches. In addition to the partners at Oceans Approved, there have been active shellfish growers who are adding seaweed to their operations and new growers who just want to focus on seaweed.

Redmond and her colleagues also have seen interest from education institutions looking into growing kelp with students. She has worked with Herring Gut Center in Port Clyde, the University of New England, and UMaine Machias. UMaine’s Susan Brawley is working with Redmond to develop other native sea vegetables (alaria, a type of kelp; dulse, a red seaweed, and laver, our local nori). All are edible sea vegetables, traditionally wild harvested, dried, and sold as a dried food that can be crumbled and added to food or re-hydrated to be cooked and eaten.

For those thinking about businesses in seaweed or shellfish aquaculture, there are still challenges to consider, including obtaining the permits and infrastructure, optimizing grow-out and harvesting (for some shellfish, growers won’t see returns for a few years), shipping to a processor or setting up a processing system, and finally, ensuring a market.

DMR has made some changes that have increased the speed with which they are processing the limited purpose aquaculture license for someone to start experimenting with small-scale aquaculture. For this reason, Maine Sea Grant, Maine Aquaculture Association, Coastal Enterprises Institute, and Island Institute partnered with fishermen from two lobster cooperatives, in Harpswell and Corea, to conduct a six-month course to investigate whether it made sense for the coops to start shellfish or seaweed aquaculture operations to create another revenue stream.

Despite the up-front challenges, the popularity of aquaculture—particularly seaweed aquaculture—continues to increase. This January, Portland will be host for the Northeast Aquaculture Conference and Expo. One clear benefit is that growers see themselves as stewards of the marine environment and everything grown or caught in Maine has that great Maine brand.

Dr. Heather Deese is an oceanographer and the Island Institute’s vice-president for strategic development. Dr. Susie Arnold is an ecologist and marine scientist with the organization.