FRANKLIN, Maine —- There’s not much tropical about Taunton Bay.
The saltwater bay, which is only about 60 miles as the crow flies from the Canadian border, is the northernmost habitat for the horseshoe crab and, given its shallow depths, has been known to freeze over on really cold winter days.
But on the eastern shore of the bay, in a 12,000-square-foot building at the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research, a tropical world is developing under the watchful eye of Soren Hansen. Hansen, who earlier this year finished relocating his enterprise from the UMaine campus in Orono to Franklin, is using heated water from the relatively pristine bay to cultivate tropical fish species that never would survive in Maine’s cold marine environment.
The building houses Hansen’s company Sea & Reef Aquaculture LLC, which breeds tropical fish for customers who like to keep them in home aquariums. If they are looking for Nemo — the type of clown fish depicted in the Disney animated movie — Hansen can send them one or more overnight by FedEx.
Hansen, a native of Denmark, has been developing ways to breed tropical fish in Maine for nearly a decade. He said last week that, having grown up in a small country that is surrounded almost entirely by ocean, his interest in tropical fish dates back to his childhood, when he had his own home aquarium.
As a UMaine graduate student in the early 2000s, Hansen first started breeding tropical fish in his dorm room closet in Orono. As he worked toward his master’s degree, he scientifically pursued the question of how to get tropical fish to reproduce in captivity.
Hansen’s experiments showed signs of success and further promise and in 2003, the year “Finding Nemo” was released, he and his business partner at the time, Chad Callan, began selling some of the clown fish they were rearing.
Hansen said last week that his business idea is really pretty simple. Most of the tropical fish sold in the home aquarium market are caught in the wild with hazardous or environmentally damaging methods, such as chemicals or even dynamite, that also can harm the health of the fish. By raising tropical fish in captivity, he said, he gives consumers the option of buying healthier fish produced by environmentally friendly means. There are only half a dozen or so commercial tropical fish breeding firms like his in the country, he said, and Sea & Reef is the only one in New England.
Growing environmental awareness, both about the health of the world’s oceans in general and specifically about how tropical fish are caught, is having an effect on the market, Hansen said. This awareness coincides with high demand for tropical fish and advances in technology that are making it easier to keep fish in home aquariums.
“The price [of tropical fish] is going up and the availability is going down on wild-caught fish,” Hansen said. “I know the demand will be high. It’s a good time to get into this market.”
As grad students, Hansen and Callan had plans to move their efforts to Hawaii, a logical place to breed tropical fish, but David Townsend, a UMaine marine sciences professor who has mentored Hansen since his early breeding efforts, encouraged them to stay in Maine.
Townsend said Friday that some people were skeptical of the idea of raising tropical fish in Maine, where aquaculture efforts typically focus on cold-water species such as salmon and cod. But Maine already had growing indoor aquaculture operations, Townsend said, and there was no reason to think tropical fish were any less suitable for climate-controlled rearing than larger fish.
“That’s like saying the University of Maine can’t have a swim team” because of the cold climate, Townsend said.
Plus, Townsend said, Maine is closer to much of the consumer base than Hawaii and, unlike the Pacific archipelago, has a climate that acts as a safeguard against any of Hansen’s fish escaping into the wild and becoming an invasive species. If any clown fish end up in Maine’s water, he said, the relatively cold water will kill them quickly.
Townsend said that, early on, Hansen and Callan showed a knack for breeding fish and an entrepreneurial instinct for finding the most efficient way to do it. That keen attention on their research and efficiency made him confident they could be successful in Maine, he said.
“They did it on their own,” the UMaine professor said. “I could never have done anything like that myself. There really is a green-thumb aspect to this.”
Jake Ward, UMaine’s assistant vice president for research, economic development and governmental relations, said Friday that despite the half-dozen years of research Sea & Reef has put into its concept, it really just now is entering the business incubation phase.
Ward admitted that when he first heard of what Hansen and Callan were doing, he also was skeptical of the idea of raising tropical fish in Maine. But he soon developed an appreciation for the market potential, he said.
The home aquarium business is estimated to be a multibillion-dollar industry, he said, and more than half of its consumer market is in the United States. Because such fish are kept as pets, rather than consumed as food, consumers are willing to shell out more — more than $100 a fish, in some cases — for a smaller fish that takes less time and effort to raise, he said.
“Dollar per pound, there’s a lot more money in this business than there is in salmon,” Ward said, referring to the largest aquaculture fishery and the second-largest commercial fishery in Maine. “We’re still finding out what aquaculture really means.”
Though Callan has since left the company, Sea & Reef now has three full-time employees including Hansen and expects to expand its production in Franklin. It produced about 1,000 fish per month in Orono with about 80 percent of them clown fish varieties, but hopes to eventually produce as many as 16,000 fish per month in its new home, Hansen said. The firm also hopes to start producing coral, sea horses and ornamental shrimp, he said.
The firm’s latest Maine Technology Institute grant, for $200,000, is paying for installation of the systems it needs to keep its operation going. Besides hundreds of small fish tanks, Sea & Reef needs facilities for growing algae and zooplankton, which serve as food for its fish. The firm also has a newly installed, up-to-date water filtration and heating system that helps to keep down energy costs and its daily water exchange rate with Taunton Bay at only 10 percent.
Hansen said he expects Sea & Reef to operate from the CCAR campus for the next five or six years. Now that the move from Orono is complete, he said he is eager to get all his systems in place and to grow his company as well as his fish.
“The past 12 months have been very busy,” Hansen said. “I think when we get up and running here we’ll be in a good position.”