Commercial Currents: Expand into Aquaculture with Business-to-Business Connections

Stephenie MacLagan
Posted 2016-05-09

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What We Do

Earlier editions of the Commercial Currents have shared how we help small businesses succeed on the coast and work to diversify island and remote coastal economies in Maine. As part of our economic diversification efforts, the Island Institute’s Economic Development and Marine Programs staff also provides business and technical support to aspiring aquaculturalists. In fall 2015, we launched the Aquaculture Business Development (ABD) Program, assisting fishermen and others who work on the water with starting their own kelp or shellfish businesses. We are excited to share this work in an interview with one of our ABD participants, below. We are also pleased to highlight the work of a well-established industry partner who works closely with several of our ABD entrepreneurs. If you are interested in learning more about our aquaculture business support, please contact Stephenie.

Boatyard Owner Expands into Mussel Aquaculture with Support from Calendar Island Mussel Company.

When an entrepreneur decides to grow their business, they can increase production, expand their customer base, or diversify their investment into another industry. For Josh Conover, a fisherman and the owner of Islesboro Marine Enterprises, it was time to look to a new industry: blue mussels.  

“I’ve been a fisherman my whole life, and helped out in the boatyards,” Conover said. Now he runs a full-service boatyard, with six full-time, year-round employees and up to four more seasonal employees. Islesboro Marine Enterprises offers a complete range of maintenance and repair services, builds and repairs boats and docks, and services hundreds of moorings. The facility includes 25,000 square feet of boat storage and a boat launch.

Growing mussels is a great way to expand the business, Conover said, and he found the Island Institute’s Aquaculture Business Development Program to be “really helpful,” especially the industry site visits and meeting industry partners like Peter Stocks.

Peter Stocks owns Calendar Island Mussel Company with his wife, Lynda Richards-Stocks. In 2007 they moved to Maine to be closer to family and change careers. “I wanted to live and work on the ocean,” said Stocks. They started out with three rafts and added three more in the second year. Now they produce over 200,000 mussels per year.

Having taught in the past, Stocks has a natural tendency toward teaching and advocacy. “Josh [Conover] was one of [the ABD participants] who showed a lot of interest, and he had done a lot of homework. We were happy to help him. I’m very excited to see others getting into aquaculture!”

Given the time commitment of starting an aquaculture farm, “You really have to look at your personal circumstances, just like starting any business,” said Stocks. Every growing site is different, so Stocks recommends talking to a lot of aquaculturalists, even those who have failed. He also points to organizations like the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA), Gulf of Maine Research Institute, Maine Sea Grant and the Island Institute as strong resources available to new aquaculturists.

Stocks also had some great advice to anyone who is looking to get into the industry: “Have a solid business plan that you write yourself. It forces you to think about a lot of scenarios, good and bad. You can, you should, go back to it to see if you’re successful or if you need to change some things.”

Also, Stocks made the age-old point that two heads are better than one: “It really helps to have a partner, someone you can trust and bounce ideas off of.” In the context of the ABD Project, Conover was able to use Stocks as a resource and float ideas about growing mussels, and Stocks shared how to source rafts that Stocks knew would not fail.

“There’s huge potential for aquaculture in Maine, because people around the world recognize Maine seafood as a high-quality product,” said Stocks. “We are creating a highly nutritional food that is affordable, and it is very sustainable.” No fertilizer is needed, and mussels filter feed nutrients out of the water, thereby improving water quality. “We need more public outreach, so that people in Maine will embrace aquaculture.”

Currently the demand for Maine mussels far exceeds the supply available. “People say that Maine could double the amount of mussels and it wouldn’t be a problem,” said Conover. He hopes to start harvesting mussels in October, selling up to 200,000 mussels over the winter, with planned expansion in coming years. Conover cautions, “It is expensive to get into mussel aquaculture. I can see financing being a problem for a lot of people. You really have to get to six rafts, and with other processing equipment it can cost $350,000.”

“I do a lot of work with MAA and others at the state to promote the aquaculture industry as one worth growing in Maine,” said Stocks, who is planning to double his production in the next two years and is also working to establish a scallop aquaculture project in the near future.

Both Conover and Stocks agree that starting a successful aquaculture venture requires a lot of planning, but when the farm is finally started, “you get to spend a lot of time outside, learning a lot about biological systems,” said Stocks. “It’s fun; it’s great to work on the water!” said Conover.

RESOURCES: Learn more about aquaculture

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