Motivated coastal residents plan their aquaculture businesses

Briana Warner|Stephenie MacLagan|Nick Battista|James Crimp
Posted 2017-06-23

We are now into our second year of our Aquaculture Business Development (ABD) program, and we continue to be inspired by the impressive men and women who are looking to diversify their incomes through shellfish and seaweed aquaculture.  Following a trip through Southern New England, the ABD 2017 participants came back extremely motivated and eager to start their own businesses within the next two years.

This second cohort includes 22 participants hailing from the Casco Bay’s Long Island to Eastport – and the age range is equally as varied. We first met in April for a meeting focused on aquaculture and business basics, and we outlined the purpose of the Industry Trip: to see well-developed shellfish aquaculture industries in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and introduce the cohort to new models in aquaculture and potential buyers. We also thought a two-and-a-half day excursion would be a great opportunity for our cohort members to get to know one another and brainstorm or collaborate on their ideas together. Before we left for the trip, each participant outlined their hopes for growing mussels, oysters, or seaweed – or some combination of the three.

Is kelp the new kale?

Harvesting kelp at Ocean Approved in Saco, ME

Our first stop was to Ocean Approved, an edible seaweed company based in Saco, Maine, to tour the processing plant and to discuss market potential for line-grown seaweed in Maine. Owner Paul Dobbins gave a phenomenal overview focused on the importance of line-grown seaweed as more sustainable, and more predictable, than wild harvest. He talked about the need for small farmers up and down the coast to build a strong Maine-brand based on supporting small businesses and coastal communities. When we left, almost all of our participants were excited to grow seaweed.

..Or are oysters the future?

Oysters being grown to seed size at Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, MA

After visiting Ocean Approved, we hopped into two large passenger vans and made our way down to Duxbury, MA, to visit Island Creek Oysters. On the way down, we overheard and participated in conversations between participants about their potential sites, their business plans, and their hopes and goals for their aquaculture farms. We knew then that this would be a successful trip.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by an enthusiastic and accommodating team at Island Creek Oyster Company, who separated us into three groups to tour the farm, the hatchery, and learn about the selling/buying side of the business. In addition to being one of the most well-known and respected oyster growers on the East Coast, Island Creek is planning to open a buying station and raw bar in Portland soon. Participants were blown away to hear how small the business started out – and how large it has become while still staying true to its core values. When we left Island Creek and headed to dinner, it seemed most of the cohort were now thinking about growing oysters.

Processing floats at Island Creek Oysters

But then there’s the allure of the blue mussel…

After a great night of eating oysters and networking with industry experts, we all got together in the hotel the next morning to go over business planning and other important aspects of the aquaculture industry. We heard from Carol White, a Chebeague Island resident, who has just started an environmental monitoring consulting company for aquaculturists – the Island Institute will be subsidizing her work for ABD participants to ensure good water quality and growing conditions for their shellfish and seaweed farms.

After the meeting, we all jumped back into the passenger vans to head down to North Kingston, RI, to visit American Mussel Harvesters and learn about their growing, processing, and buying operations. Owner Bill Silkes met us at the door and shared with us his 20+ years of experience in the shellfish industry. It was truly incredible to see the large-scale processing that was going on in the facility – it was much bigger than anything we had seen in Maine. Bill toured us around the facility and shouted over the sound of mussels being cleaned and sorted, to us about all aspects of the process. By the time we left that tour, some of the cohort members had an increased interest in growing mussels, while others gained an appreciation for the upfront costs of starting a mussel business.

Touring American Mussel Harvesters in North Kingston, RI

We were then retreated to a quieter setting on the processing float of the Matunuck Oyster Company and Oyster Bar, where Owner Perry Raso gave an incredible tour and discussion of his farm. He told us all about how seafood cultivation is the only way to effectively adapt to a changing ocean. He also discussed the need for vertical integration and good farm management to increase profits for any shellfish company. He then led us into his great oyster bar where we all ate local fish and oysters – and discussed what we learned on the trip.

ABD participants had the opportunity to see the large-scale processing facility at American Mussel Harvesters

Bringing it back to Maine

The next day, we were all headed back North in our passenger vans. Exclamations about the trip filled our remaining time together: “Getting to have dinner with those guys was so enlightening,” “I’ll be in touch about my business plan,” and “Let’s put something on the calendar soon for Carol to test the water around my proposed lease site.” A good night’s sleep also allowed people to think through the species that they would be growing – most are going to be moving forward with oysters and/or edible seaweed but a few who are working toward making the investment in mussels.

Our original plan was to call our next meeting at the end of fishing season when participants are less busy, but over the weeks since our initial meeting and trip, we have been engaged by almost every participant as they are already actively working to start their farms within the next year. Through the summer, we look forward to providing one-on-one technical assistance for leasing and siting, business planning support, community relations advice, connections with in-state experts on husbandry and biosecurity, and introductions to potential buyers and distributers. We are eager to meet back up as a whole group in October to celebrate their journeys in starting their own farms.