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December 1, 2001

Funding, moratorium highlight ongoing aquaculture debate

by Dan O\'grady

Aquaculture has always been controversial in Maine, and recent developments suggest that the tradition lives on.

The University of Maine recently announced that it would spend $1.2 million to build a land-based aquaculture research center in Franklin. Earlier in the year, the University received a $25 million grant from the USDA to fund its aquaculture program. Both of these investments, the University asserts, will train students for future employment, and ensure continuing research relevant to the aquaculture industry.

Meanwhile, the Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA) debated a motion for a two-year moratorium on new aquaculture leases west of Schoodic Peninsula at a recent meeting, at the suggestion of Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) office in Rockland. Shelley cited the need for new comprehensive rules concerning the granting of aquaculture leases that would take into account the concerns of the public and other industries.

With wild stocks of many commercial species in jeopardy, aquaculture could potentially play a role in meeting the increasing demand for seafood worldwide. According to the recently released report on aquaculture by the Pew Oceans Commission, global aquaculture production has expanded more than 10 percent per year over the past decade. Maine is the nation's leading producer of farmed salmon, harvesting 36 million pounds in 2000 with a "farm gate" value of $101 million, according to Chris Bartlett, a Marine Extension Associate with Maine Sea Grant.

Ecological concerns are at the heart of much of the controversy. The Pew report, for example, notes that selective breeding of farmed fish could change their genetic makeup. Accidental releases of farmed salmon, the report warns, could breed with and significantly change the genetic makeup of wild Maine salmon. Scientists disagree on the potential effects of escaped salmon, but a recent escape of over 100,000 farmed salmon in Maine prompted calls for better controls.

Shelley's response to the escapes was to demand a stop to new leases. "What is needed now is a halt to any new aquaculture facilities in the state," he wrote on the CLF website, "until adequate protocols to prevent the escape of farmed fish are developed."

The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) recognizes the potential risks of aquaculture and addresses them in a report, also posted on the World Wide Web. While noting that many of the identified problems with aquaculture do not apply specifically to aquaculture in Maine, the report notes that "the Maine Environmental Priorities Council has identified aquaculture as a potential risk and found that while not a high risk, it is one that warrants continuous scrutiny."

In light of the risk, the Finfish Aquaculture Monitoring Program and the Atlantic Salmon Conservation Plan were established by a number of state and federal agencies with cooperation from the aquaculture industry to address emerging issues involving aquaculture's impact on the marine environment. The application process for obtaining an aquaculture lease also involves monitoring and review. "In some cases the entire process -- receipt of the application to granting of the lease -- can take over a year," states the DMR report. Proposed aquaculture lease sites are evaluated for suitability and for potential impacts to the environment, other fisheries, landowners and public recreation. If a proposed lease passes this review process, a public hearing is held before a final decision is made.

One reason for the mixed public perception of aquaculture may be the lack of information getting out regarding ongoing research and monitoring. "It's important to get this information out to the public so they can make informed decisions on this issue," Bartlett said.

The recent outbreak of infectious salmon anemia (ISA) in the salmon pens of Cobscook Bay has affected nearly a million farm-raised fish at an estimated loss of $12 million. The US Department of Agriculture has asked for $24 million in federal funds to go towards research involving the ISA outbreak and to purchase diseased salmon in order to stop the spread of the disease (see related story).

"For Maine, this is becoming a very important industry, especially for Downeast," said Rep. Tom Allen, the state's First District congressman. Sen. Olympia Snowe commented that "without question, infectious salmon anemia jeopardizes the future of the Maine industry."


While salmon farming is dominant in Maine, shellfish aquaculture, such as oysters, mussels, scallops and clams plays a role as well. At Great Eastern Mussel farms in Tenants Harbor, production has grown to over six million pounds, making it the largest mussel harvester in the nation.

According to Dana Morse, a Maine Sea Grant Marine Extension Associate, shellfish aquaculture in Maine has economic potential. "There is a reasonable place for shellfish aquaculture in Maine," he said. He points out that because shellfish are filter feeders, the quality of the product depends on the quality of the environment it was raised in, so shellfish growers have to be keenly aware of environmental issues.

Aquaculture techniques can also be used to enhance a wild fishery. Morse points to recent scallop and soft-shell clam projects he has been involved in, in which settling larvae or "spat" are collected and allowed to grow, and then released into the ocean to be collected by commercial fisherman.

The Island Institute has been involved in promoting experimental mussel raft culture, and has supported small-scale mussel aquaculture by independent growers.

"Short of a moratorium on new leases, perhaps we could look more deeply at the various issues involved in raising different species, develop strategies, and keep rational, sustainable, environmentally sound aquaculture as a growth industry in Maine," says Ben Neal, Marine Resources Officer at the Island Institute.

"The waterfront is a place that a lot of people use, and means different things to different people," said Morse, "It's important to listen to and understand the concerns of everyone involved."

Dan O'Grady is an Island Institute Fellow

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