January 16, 2018
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UMM Researcher Receives $600,000 NSF Grant to Bolster Aquaculture Research

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MACHIAS, Maine – A researcher at the University of Maine at Machias has received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the potential for new aquaculture markets for two shellfish in Maine. The research aims to improve the growth and survival of blue mussels and Arctic surfclams in an effort to create new economic opportunities.

The grant, awarded through NSF’s Partnerships for Innovation program, will provide two years of funding as researchers at the university’s marine field station at the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education look at ways to enhance shellfish rearing methods and explore the commercial production potential of the two species. A major component of the project involves collaboration with two regional seafood businesses – Cooke Aquaculture and A.C. Inc.

Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at UMM and the lead investigator on the grant, says that the project will focus on improving aquaculture methods for growing blue mussels and Arctic surfclams for commercial markets, while also providing the partnering businesses with valuable market research on new aquaculture operations.

“We are exploring the viability of increasing cultured shellfish operations here in Maine,” said Beal. “The U.S. imports around 85% of its seafood, yet we have incredible potential right here in eastern Maine to supply seafood for the U.S. and other parts of the world.”

While Maine’s cultured mussel industry grew from 600,000 pounds harvested in 2008 to 1,400,000 pounds in 2010, according to Maine Department of Marine Resources data, the industry suffers from seed shortages. Mussel production relies on collecting commercial quantities of wild seed by hanging ropes vertically from floating rafts and other structures. This technique has produced varied results for farmers and has become a major bottleneck in the growth of the industry, says Beal.

The research team at the Downeast Institute, located in Beals, will partner with Cooke Aquaculture 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.

Pilot studies were begun in 2012 involving innovative culture practices for blue mussels in the hatchery and field. The NSF project will expand those activities over the next two years to investigate and further refine hatchery methods to create a consistent, reliable source of seed for farmers. Once seed is produced, its fate will then be followed in unoccupied commercial salmon pens and mussel rafts in two large bays in eastern Maine that have been the focus of the team’s pilot studies.

Unlike blue mussels, the Arctic surfclam is not a commercial species in the U.S., despite its occurrence in waters off Maine. Considered a delicacy in Asia and other parts of the world, the surfclam has been a commercial fishery in Canada for more than 20 years.

Because no large wild beds of Arctic surfclams have been discovered off Maine, entering the market for live and processed shellfish through aquaculture operations presents a unique and challenging opportunity. According to Beal, no one else has attempted to grow Arctic surfclams, but pilot studies at the Downeast Institute have shown that the species can be reared in a shellfish hatchery, and the juveniles can be grown on mudflats near the low-water mark.

Researchers will work with Beals-based seafood distributor A.C. Inc. to conduct studies on the surfclam to examine how changes in diet and seawater temperature impact the species’ reproductive output, survival, and growth. The results will provide valuable information for U.S. companies interested in using cultured shellfish to compete for a portion of the seafood export market.

With Beal taking the lead role in the project, co-principal investigators include Kevin Athearn, associate professor of natural resource economics at UMM; Sandra Shumway, research professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut; and Christopher Davis, a founding partner of Pemaquid Oyster Company and executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center.

The project will build upon research already underway by Cooke Aquaculture and Beal, who earlier this year received a $100,000 grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund Small Campus Initiative to support the aquaculture studies.

“This award will provide a significant boost to our work in supporting regional economic development through applied research and innovation,” said Beal.