The world is eating more farmed seafood than ever before, and aquaculture continues to grow faster than any other major food production sector. Maine’s aquaculture sector generates $137.6 million for the states economy and is poised to grow significantly in the coming years. As a result, more communities are looking at ways to help individuals enter this industry.

The Island Institute saw this unique opportunity as complementary to their work in coastal communities. Shellfish and seaweed aquaculture can be done by fishermen alongside their fishing businesses and can create an economic shock absorber to lessen the blow of climate-driven instability on working families. In order to help fisherman start aquaculture farms, the Island Institute developed the Aquaculture Business Development (ABD) Program in 2016.


Keith Miller during a kelp harvest in 2018

"With lobstering the way it is, and the whole world the way it is, you really need a backup plan. I’ve been in the urchin industry, the shrimping industry, and now we’re going to go into the kelp industry.”

–Keith Miller, fisherman in his 3rd year of growing kelp.

The philosophy of the ABD program is simple. First, target leaders and rising stars in the lobster industry who are best poised to be successful in creating income-generating aquaculture businesses for their communities within a short time frame. Second, aggregate the impact and geographic distribution by working with fishermen up and down the coast, who—in turn—will be able to create a proof of concept and inspire other fishermen who are interested in starting their own aquaculture businesses.

But the question remains: How do you train and support an aquaculturist in 1-3 years?

The ABD program takes both an academic and experiential approach to this conundrum.

The strength of the ABD program is its focus on business planning, its prolonged one-on-one support services, and its networking strategy to help ABD cohort members get in the water. Like starting or expanding any business, it can be challenging to wade through unfamiliar regulations, create a business plan, and understand the complexities of the supply chain.


2019 ABD participants engage with Bremen-based aquaculturist and businessman, Boe Marsh of Community Shellfish. Throughout the annual ABD "Bootcamp", participants learn from and network with experienced members of Maine's aquaculture industry.

 

Business Support Services that ABD provides:        

  • Training on various aquaculture species including mussels, oysters, and seaweed species
  • Farm health and public health training
  • Assistance in the understanding and acquisition of the required state leasing and licensing,  site selection, and maintaining positive community relations
  • Contracting (for free to participants) with an environmental consulting business to monitor and test farm sites
  • On-site training at established aquaculture operations in Maine and southern New England
  • Connecting participants into a robust network of existing aquaculturists and industry experts
  • One-on-one assistance with developing a business plan, marketing strategy, and farm management plan
  • Facilitated access to financing and continued business support for the first three years of business operation

Residents of Frenchboro received advice from Island Institute employees and consultants before putting their oyster gear in the water.

The program provides an essential combination of advanced technical assistance, industry networking, small business loans, and professional development microgrants to ensure that burgeoning aquaculture entrepreneurs have the support they most need from the very first decision of which aquaculture species to cultivate, to making sure their new employees have the training they need to be most successful on the job.

Along with the technical assistance services Island Institute staff provides to ABD participants, it also provides microgrants for professional and skills development. The microgrants give small business owners the chance to help their employees gain necessary skills, qualifying certifications, and the technical training they need to support the successful growth of their business.

Grants range from $500-$1500. In prior years, an oyster grower from the ABD program received a grant to help source and engage new markets outside of Maine. Another oyster grower will be using the grant to send two employees to HACCP certification training.

A third company will be using the grant for branding and marketing assistance for their new aquaculture operation.

This program has several ABD fisherman already in the water and continues to build a network of fishermen/farmers that can educate and inspire one another. It actively fosters the network of communication between farmers through making direct connections and actively encouraging a culture of sharing between ABD participants. One of the biggest values to this program is the extensive network of established industry partners to share best practices and potential commercial partnerships with new growers.


Josh Conover pulls up a line of mussels one on of his rafts off the coast of Islesboro.

"One of the biggest benefits for us was going down to Casco Bay and seeing Bangs Island Mussels and Calendar Island Mussels. Both of them have been very helpful in us getting a start in the aquaculture industry."

–Josh Conover, fisherman & boatyard owner, ABD participant, and now owner of Marshall Cove Aquaculture

This program continues to evolve and grow. Institute staff indicate that this program has  surpassed expectations in terms of both participant interest as well the speed with which participants successfully launched new kelp and shellfish aquaculture businesses. This bodes well for coastal communities and Maines aquaculture industry in general.

 

Workforce development in the marine biology and ocean food systems sectors will be critical to seeing Maine’s marine economy prosper in an uncertain and unpredictable future. All levels of preparation are key in order to serve all the labor needs of a growing and changing industry. The University of New England’s School of Marine Programs has developed a unique set of degree programs that seek to address some of these workforce needs. At the undergraduate level, the school has In addition to traditional degree tracks in Marine Biology and Oceanography, degrees in; Marine Affairs, Marine Entrepreneurship, and Aquaculture and Aquarium Sciences. Each of the School’s programs has the same foundational education in Marine Science with specialized coursework geared towards each degrees area of specialization.

Marine affairs students engage in curriculum focused on conservation, management, regulation and governance of the ocean, one of only four undergraduate programs in the country with this particular focus.  Marine Entrepreneurship students take courses across the School or Marine Programs and the Department of Business, some of whom have even started their own businesses while still in school. Aquaculture and aquarium science students, part of a first-in-the-nation program navigate a skills-heavy, hands-on curriculum paired with applied marine sciences and boast a 10-year history.

“When I found out UNE had a Marine Entrepreneurship program, everything fell into place. I started my own business at the end of my sophomore year….This program has been one of the best opportunities I have been given”

– Jillian Robillard’ 20, Marine Entrepreneurship Student

The newest addition to the suite of Marine degree programs comes in the form of a new Professional Science Masters (PSM) in Ocean Food Systems. The PSM degree is one of the fastest growing segments of graduate education in the country, designed to provide students advanced training in science while also developing valuable interdisciplinary workplace skills on a 12-16 month timeline, including working closed with industry. 

Photos:  University of New England

The PSM in Ocean Food Systems is a 12-month degree program the holistically examines ocean foods value chains in fisheries and aquaculture, seafood trade, and interact with marine governance, law, management, and policy. Students earn a UNE degree while benefitting from the expertise of instructors, researchers, and industry professionals throughout the North Atlantic. The unique program features team building two-week residencies in Iceland and Maine where students, faculty, and industry partners identify local to global connections and challenges to study as PSM projects. Ultimately, the goal is for OFS Students to become the critical innovators and creators in Ocean Foods in Maine and beyond. 

 

Seafood is the most widely traded global commodity on earth. Increasingly, Maine’s seafood is highly desired not just by local tourists in the summer, but is in demand globally with a reputation as some of the world’s best. Having an international perspective on ocean food systems is critical to confronting and solving looming seafood related challenges. UNE NORTH: The Institute for North Atlantic Studies works closely with the UNE School of Marine Programs to foster international collaboration and innovation with partner universities across the North Atlantic Arctic including Holar University and University of Akureyri in Iceland and the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, with emerging partnerships in Norway and Atlantic Canada.

This nuanced approach to a practical, applied and innovation focused Marine Education, with paired local and global perspectives can help to fill the needs of a growing, but ultimately challenging and increasingly unpredictable industry.

This entry was written by Adam St. Gelais

Adam is the Assistant Director for Science at UNE NORTH: The Institute for North Atlantic Studies and a lecturer in the Ocean Food Systems Graduate Program in the UNE School of Marine Programs. His research interests center on working closely with seafood producers at intersection of ocean farming, marine ecology.