MACHIAS, Maine – Dr. Brian Beal, a marine ecology professor at the University of Maine at Machias, has received a $100,000 grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund Small Campus Initiative to support shellfish research.
The project, titled “Shellfish Research in Downeast Maine: Building Innovation Capacity to Diversify Economic Opportunities,” aims to improve aquaculture methods for growing blue mussels and arctic surfclams. The funding will allow researchers to examine the production potential for both species using current aquaculture methods and test alternative techniques in an effort to realize consistent results in both the hatchery and field. The research could have a significant impact on the diversification and enhancement of Maine’s commercial shellfish industry.
“I am thankful that the work was funded as it is very exciting to think about how the research has the potential to create new economic opportunities for the shellfishing industry in Downeast Maine,” said Beal.
Research for the project will be conducted by staff and students at the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education, the marine field station for UMM’s Marine Biology program. The institute, located in Beals, is well known for its research on soft-shell clams and educational outreach with Washington County schools. Beal serves as the director of research for the facility.
The group’s research on blue mussels will seek to improve and ensure consistency in the supply of mussel seed to aquaculturists. Until recently, most farmers in the cultured mussel industry found success in relying on “rope culture”—hanging ropes seeded with mussels from floating rafts—as the preferred method for collecting mussel seed stock. Over the past two to three years, that process has delivered inconsistent results for farmers along the entire Maine coast.
Beal and researchers at the Downeast Institute will partner with Cooke Aquaculture in Eastport and Machiasport to examine seeding techniques for the blue mussel. The group will induce wild mussels to spawn at various times of year at the field station and conduct tests to determine what types of rope maximize settlement of juvenile mussels, known as spat. They’ll also look at how to configure nursery ropes in settlement tanks to maximize growth and survival rates, how large mussel spat should be when it is taken from the field station and transported to the farming sites, the optimal density of spat on ropes to maximize growth and survival at the pen sites, and the optimal depth of water below floating rafts where growth is fastest.
As part of the grant-funded project, researchers will also conduct a separate study on the arctic surfclam to examine how changes in diet and seawater temperature impact the species’ reproductive output, survival, and growth.
Although the arctic surfclam lives in the Gulf of Maine, a commercial fishery for the species has not been established in the state. It is harvested in eastern Nova Scotia, off the Grand Banks near Newfoundland, along Quebec’s North Shore, and the Magdalen Islands. The arctic surfclam is considered a delicacy in Asia and other parts of the world due to its nutritional appeal and the brilliant orange color of its foot when cooked.
Previous studies at the Downeast Institute have shown that the arctic surfclam can be cultured in a shellfish hatchery and the juveniles can be grown on mudflats near the low-water mark.
Once their research on the blue mussel and arctic surfclam is complete, Beal and his team hope that their findings will improve the vitality of Maine’s shellfish industry.
“If successful, this work will help to diversify the products harvested from along our shores and create jobs for those who would take advantage of this new knowledge,” said Beal.
The Maine Economic Improvement Fund Small Campus Initiative was established in 2009 to support applied research in targeted areas at the University of Maine at Augusta, University of Maine at Farmington, University of Maine at Fort Kent, University of Maine at Machias, and University of Maine at Presque Isle. The fund is distributed annually on a competitive basis and is administered by the University of Maine System.