New scallop aquaculture coop aims to diversify a fishery while keeping profits ‘at the shore’

Maine Aquaculture Coop members with a contingent from PEI who were visiting to learn about aquaculture initiatives in Maine.

In 2016, fresh from her experience working to help set up the Tenants Harbor Fishermen’s Coop, longtime seasonal St. George resident Merritt Carey got an idea for a new venture that had the potential to benefit local lobstermen even more. What about getting local fishermen involved in the emerging scallop aquaculture industry?

“We formed the fishermen’s coop and simultaneously I was doing some consulting for Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI),” Carey, a lawyer turned project developer with a focus on fisheries-related projects, explains. “CEI does a lot—they administer the Working Waterfront program and they are the ones who were investing in and trying to promote scallop aquaculture in Maine through a technology transfer with Japan. Because I was doing this consulting work I got to know something about that and thought it was pretty cool, so I began talking to Peter Miller [a member of the Tenants Harbor Fishermen’s Coop] about it.”

Carey and Miller contacted Dana Morse of Maine Sea Grant at the University of Maine, a program that supplies marine science support on issues of concern to Maine’s coastal communities. “He came along and he, Peter, Chris Cook and I went out and looked around Penobscot Bay at potential scallop aquaculture sites just for the fun of it,” Carey says. “And we got a lot of information from him about what was involved.”

Carey and Miller’s researches also led them to a handful of others in the Penobscot Bay area who were experimenting with raising scallops—Brendan Atwood out of Pleasant Island working with Skip Connell out of Spruce Head, Marsden Brewer and his son Bobby in Stonington. “At this point we decided to set up a coop because I knew how to do that,” Merritt notes. “Because it’s not cheap to get into scallop aquaculture and because it’s a slightly different skill set, the coop provides the entity that can raise funds through grant writing [for the expensive equipment required—about $87,500 so far]—and a way to share information. It’s very organic. We’ve named it the Maine Aquaculture Coop. We were the first and perhaps we’re the only aquaculture coop in the state.”

A compelling reason to give scallop aquaculture a try, says Miller, is to provide an additional income stream for younger lobster fishermen. “This is for the next generation, in my opinion. I’m 66. I always had the diversification of the fisheries that my son or the younger guys don’t have anymore. I could go ground fishing, I could go scalloping, go lobstering, just go season to season and make a living. The younger fishermen cannot any longer get a scallop license or an elver license. The ground fish are controlled by the Feds and you need to own quota and have a NE Multispecies permit—which are no longer available, except by purchase. They are prohibitively expensive. Sometimes into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The shrimp season has been closed for three years now with no idea of when or if it will ever reopen. The urchin fishery is a closed fishery for both dragging and diving. Most all or any fishery that a young fisherman could diversify into are closed or no new licenses are being issued. So scallop aquaculture is hopefully something that many fishing communities can do and keep the money here.”

The choice of scallop aquaculture over other types of acquaculture, Miller adds, was a calculated one. “What we looked at, number one, was that no one was really doing it with scallops, so why not be number one? Also, scallops are a fairly high value item, so if we’re going to put the effort in, let’s make it worth it.”

For the past 20 years or so, efforts to successfully “farm” scallops had been frustrated by technological problems—largely because the focus was on trying to utilize the “cage” system used in oyster aquaculture and this didn’t work well for raising scallops, which need more room to grow. The key breakthrough came when fishermen like Marsden Brewer in Stonington and entities like CEI began looking to Japan for ideas.

The Japanese method focuses on raising the scallops from spat (or larvae)—which the Maine Aquaculture Coop fishermen collect wild—by hanging them in the water column in lantern nets for a couple of years. Ear hanging, which involves drilling a hole in the scallop ear (the protruding margin of shell near where the two shells join), is a method of choice to grow juveniles to maturity after the lantern-net stage.

Scallops that had been thinned ready to go back into lantern net to do some more growing.

While CEI has been focusing on testing ear-hanging technology, the Maine Aquaculture Coop, Carey and Miller say, has become focused on developing a market for what they call the “intermediary culture” of juvenile scallops, or “live in-shell baby sea scallops”—scallops not yet large enough to ear hang. “Ninety percent of the spat you collect to grow will not be ear hung because there just isn’t the space in the ocean to do that,” Miller points out. “So you can only hang about 10 percent. So what do you do with the other 90 percent? There’s actually a market for that size among chefs.”

Carey adds, “The nice thing is that selling these baby scallops gets you in the black sooner, it’s a little more novel and that sea-to-table story is a little quicker.”

Miller has been raising scallops in lantern nets on two 400-foot-square Limited-Purpose Aquaculture one-year leases. Other coop members also have these types of leases, and about 10 fishermen have been collecting spat. “It’s all more labor-intensive than any of us imagined,” Carey says with a rueful smile. The next step is for several fishermen to apply together for an “Experimental” (Limited-Purpose) lease which is for three years and covers up to four acres, with the requirement to share data with the state’s Department of Marine Resources. Eventually, the coop hopes its members can qualify for Standard leases of up to 100 acres for 10 years.

An obvious question is whether this type of deep-water aquaculture will raise objections from local lobstermen, whose ability to set traps might be limited by leases. Ironically, both Carey and Miller say, the tension between lobstering and scallop aquaculture is crucial to the coop’s goal of keeping profits from raising scallops “at the shore.”

Carey explains: “The money from lobstering has stayed in these coastal communities because of the owner/operator requirement, so you can never scale up lobstering—although, even so, it has been consolidated and it has become a more competitive environment. But the owner/operator requirement and the limited-entry fishery has by the very nature of its structure kept the money at the shore. So all the other fisheries, in various ways, they can be consolidated at a corporate level. So that could be true of aquaculture because there is no owner/operator requirement. There is nothing keeping a big corporation from getting massive lease sites—except for the lobster fishermen who always will have a say in limiting leases if it’s productive bottom. ‘I fish that bottom so you can’t make it a lease site.’”

Miller drives home the point: “Because lobstermen and lobstering are so important on the coast, if aquaculture is going to gain speed on the coast, the lobstermen are going to have to help usher it in.” For this reason the Maine Aquaculture Coop is primarily composed of commercial lobstermen, the very people who have a vested interest in not allowing scallop aquaculture to restrict lobstering. The lease sites Miller chose, for example, cover an area he knows from his own long experience as a lobsterman to be unproductive bottom. And he sees lobstering and scallop farming as a seamless fit. “Our model is that I can go out with my sternman and also tend my two lines of lantern baskets.”

Right now, the Maine Aquaculture Coop has a widespread membership, although the actual farming is primarily occurring in Penobscot Bay. Carey says she is also getting many email enquiries from interested fisherman all along the coast. The Island Institute has asked the coop to run their Aquaculture Business Development program in scallops and the group has also recently partnered with the University of Maine on a grant application to do some community studies about what makes aquaculture a success in rural communities like St. George and Stonington.

“We really want to be the place where fishermen who want to be involved in scallop aquaculture can come to get involved,” Carey says. “It’s exciting that so many people are interested in what we’re doing. We just want to make sure that coastal communities aren’t forgotten with all this money that is coming into the state and all this push to develop aquaculture at a commercial level.”—JW

PHOTOS: Courtesy Maine Aquaculture Coop

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