by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink/Gulf Seafood Foundation Board Member
Growing shell and finfish in an aquaculture setting is certainly doable in the Gulf of Mexico according to Sebastian Belle, Executive Director of the Maine Aquaculture Association (MAA). The association recently hosted 20 members of the Gulf seafood community who ventured to the Pine Tree State to examine its innovative aquaculture program.
The tour, organized by the Gulf Seafood Institute and funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was designed to showcase the success of Maine’s 40-year-old aquaculture program and give Gulf visitors new insights.
In 2016, NOAA filed a final rule implementing the nation’s first comprehensive regulatory program for aquaculture in federal waters. The rule allowed for the establishment of a regional permitting process to manage the development of an environmentally sound and economically sustainable aquaculture industry in federal waters of the Gulf.
Throughout the process, NOAA Fisheries has worked with stakeholders to address questions and help policy makers understand the challenges and opportunities in aquaculture. By traveling to Maine, Gulf of Mexico fishermen, scientists and state officials were able to explore real-world examples of successful aquaculture companies and seafood farmers and have meaningful discussions with researchers, policy makers and growers.
“The Gulf of Mexico is known for its seafood cuisine, but most of the fish served in regional restaurants is imported,” said Michael Rubino, Director of NOAA Fisheries Office of Aquaculture. “Local aquaculture can complement local commercial fishing to help bring local fish back to daily menus and provide a healthy center-of-the-plate protein. The trip to Maine was another example of how we are collaborating to inform stakeholders about the important economic and food security benefits of responsible aquaculture.”
Dr. Carrie Castille, agriculture and natural resources consultant to the Gulf Seafood Foundation said, “The need for safe, sustainably sourced, high-quality protein continues to increase. The Gulf of Mexico can provide a self-supporting ecosystem that could enhance fisheries’ production and provide a consistent supply to the consumer.”
Technology Advancing Rapidly
Aquaculture technology has progressed quickly and continues to evolve.
“In the Gulf as the species that are going to be cultured, and gear that will be used to culture those species evolve, people will find the right kind of sites and right kind of gear,” said Belle about the proposed NOAA permits.
The Gulf of Mexico marine weather pattern is like no other in the world. Its Mexico Loop Current is a ring of warm water that fuels the rapid intensification of relatively frequent hurricanes that cross the Gulf. According to Belle, advancements have produced equipment that can weather high-energy storm events if properly installed in deeper water.
“There is no question that the Gulf has some unique challenges because of the frequency of hurricanes, but there are farms installed in high-energy environments around the world and the technology they are using has proven to be robust, and the survivability of farms has increased dramatically during the last decade,” said Belle, who began his career as a commercial fisherman, working his way through university as a mate on offshore lobster boats.
Belle sees the shallow depth in the Gulf as another challenge. “The reason water depth is important is because you need a minimum depth for fish cages, as well as shellfish long-line operations,” he explained. “One way to deal with big storms is to submerge gear in deeper water. Gulf operators will have to figure out alternatives, some areas of the Gulf simply may not be optimal for aquaculture development.”
Maine Aquaculture Expanding
Before joining the Maine Aquaculture Association, Belle was the state aquaculture coordinator working for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Aquaculture arrived on Maine shores in 1974. His organization was formed in 1976. Today, MMA has 190 fully licensed farms, as well as 200 farms called “pre-revenue,” started within the last three years.
“Most of our recent expansion has been in the shellfish and seaweed sector. Finfish has been a slower to expand because its capital intensity and site requirements can be more challenging,” said the aquaculture expert.
Maine’s sells salmon, oysters and mussels almost exclusively in North America. “We export little or no product because demand for North American-grown seafood here is off the charts,” he said. “We sell everything we can grow, and we sell it at a premium price.”
According to Belle, the U.S. and Canadian markets include everything from direct sales, and white-tablecloth restaurants to large institutional buyers like Sysco, as well as everything in between.
Maine is one of the few states in the country with a full-time staffed professional aquaculture association. Belle said that means that the visibility in the Maine legislature, and in Washington, D.C., is relatively high.
“People have known us for a long time,” said Belle. “We do a lot of education outreach with legislators. We take them on tours, introduce them to the farmers, and explain our business to them so they understand the challenges we face.
“This is a different approach than hiring contract lobbyists on a case-by-case basis. Those are hired guns. “We bring our farmers in to meet legislators, and they’ve known me personally for many years. That allows us to have a very open and honest discussion with legislators about our needs.”
Belle places great importance on legislators of all levels learning that aquaculture farmers are responsible business people trying to build businesses employing others while creating a great product. “I think that is a story that they are very receptive to. They think it is a good deal for the state and the country.”
Belle said that in aquaculture’s early years, some of farmers did things that weren’t environmentally responsible, but learned from their mistakes. “Admitting we made mistakes goes along way with building trust with our legislators.
One early misstep by Maine aquafarmers was relying heavily on environmental modeling during site selection. According to Belle, although there are some basic environmental conditions necessary for good sites, current speeds for example, it is very difficult to accurately predict how a specific site responds to the nutrients coming from a farm.
“Some of the early sites that were chosen based on models turned bad, conversely other sites the models predicted would be unacceptable actually turned out to handled the nutrients from the farms very well,” he explained. “A better approach is a basic site assessment to document existing site conditions before the farm start-up and then continuous monitoring during the process. Models have improved and can be useful tools in studying a operating farm, but at the end of the day successful farm operations come from closely watching how a site reacts to operations, then using that empirical data to ensure continued success.”
The Maine aquaculture community works closely with both recreational and commercial fishermen to understand and address needs and concerns.
“During the early days of our program, recreational fishermen expresses concerns about being displaced. Over the years of working together they have come to the realization the farming infrastructure enhances the recreational ecosystem. They are now very supportive of what we do,” Belle said.
To form a better relationship with commercial fisherman the Working Waterfront Coalition was formed. It has been instrumental in forming a long-term relationship between aquaculture and commercial fishermen. The two groups worked together early on to formulate needed legislation
“At the end of the day it is all about personal relationships on the water,” he explained. “When fishing next to each other you learn to communicate and get along. If you’re on the water and a ‘mayday’ comes in you don’t ask if you’re a fish farmer or a lobsterman, you just go help the other guy.”
The Maine Aquaculture Association has also been instrumental in establishing Area Management Agreements where farms agree to co-manage the bay. Part of the agreement includes more experienced farmers helping newer farmers not to repeat the same mistakes made when they first started. The program, which Belle sees as crucial with expect significant expansion over the next 10 years, has proved productive in preventing repeat mistakes.
“There are some great management systems out there,” he explained. “Japan has a management system based on fisherman co-ops, Europe has management systems based on associations and area management agreements. Here in Maine’s we modeled ours after the European system.
“Developing offshore aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico will benefit everyone. Consumers will get additional access to sustainable domestically grown seafood,” said Jim Gossen, President of the Gulf Seafood Foundation. “Using the latest proven management practices, this should provide more wild fish to both the recreational and commercial fisheries.”
Belle feels aquaculture is definitely doable and it will succeed in the long run. “The fact that they took the time to come to Maine to look at how things are working here is very encouraging,” he said. “One of the things I have seen time and time again in aquaculture around the world is people trying to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of smart people who have figured out how to do aquaculture in a sustainable and responsible way. It is important to learn from those folks and not try to start at square one, avoid the same mistakes we did when we started in this business.”