ORONO, Maine — After years of painstaking research, scientists and fishermen have made substantial progress in learning how to grow seaweed, oysters, mussels, salmon and other marine species along the coast of Maine.
Now, with $20 million in funding from the National Science Foundation, the state’s aquaculture industry stands to learn more about the ecological and economic factors that can help it grow more and stay sustainable.
The $20 million foundation grant awarded to the University of Maine will establish a new network of Maine aquaculture and marine research institutions, UMaine officials indicated Wednesday in a prepared statement. The collaborative partnership, consisting of 10 higher education and research institutions in Maine, will be called the Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network, or SEANET. The grant money is intended to fund research and scientific projects for the next five years, according to UMaine officials.
Paul Anderson, director of Maine Sea Grant and the Aquaculture Research Institute at UMaine, will take on the added role as director of SEANET. Anderson said Wednesday that “very little” of the grant will fund infrastructure or husbandry research projects aimed at perfecting methods for getting marine species to reproduce.
Instead, he said, the money will be used to help fund broader economic and ecology research geared toward positioning Maine aquaculture firms in the seafood market and in locations where the environment and communities can support it.
Determining where aquaculture operations are compatible with other marine and waterfront uses and what kind of market demand or opportunities exist for Maine aquaculture products are among the questions the grant will help researchers examine, Anderson said. How aquaculture operations affect water bodies and how aquaculture might be affected by warming oceans or heavier rainfall are also areas of interest to SEANET, he added.
The funds will enable researchers to explore possible applications for aquaculture products beyond the dinner plate, such as for use in composite materials or medicine, and could pay for the purchase and operation of climatic sensor buoys in coastal waters that will help aquaculture operators keep track of ocean conditions.
“A lot of this will be [focused] around shellfish and seaweed,” Anderson said.
First on the list, he added, is to hire new faculty and to fund research positions to pursue the scientific investigations. He said he expects to hire three new faculty positions at UMaine and one new faculty member at the University of New England in Biddeford.
What kind of projects SEANET first pursues largely will depend on the areas of expertise and experience of the new people brought on board and the collaborative projects that present themselves, he said. The social impact that aquaculture has on coastal communities is expected to be among the topics that are studied.
One research project that Anderson said would make sense to tackle early on would be in the tidal Bagaduce River, where a steep increase in aquaculture projects over the past two years has raised questions about the impact it is having on the watershed and surrounding communities.
“We really do have to take a look at this river and see what it can handle” socially and ecologically, Anderson said. “We really don’t know.”
All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, plus the presidents of UMaine and UNE, applauded the award of the grant in the prepared statement released Wednesday. Other partners in the network include University of Southern Maine, University of Maine at Machias, Bowdoin College, Maine Maritime Academy, St. Joseph’s College, Southern Maine Community College, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and Cobscook Community Learning Center.