September 20, 2018
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These machines from Japan could put scallop farming in Maine on the map

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff
Updated:

A project in Maine, boosted by a new grant, would establish the first semi-automated commercial scallop aquaculture operations outside Japan.

The $300,000 grant to CEI, a Brunswick business development organization, from the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research of Washington, D.C., will help fund efforts to test the economic viability of cultivating scallops on ropes at aquaculture sites in Maine’s coastal waters.

As part of that effort, Bangs Island Mussel in Portland and Pine Point Oyster in Scarborough are testing out machinery made in Japan that should help automate much of the labor-intensive process of attaching and growing scallops on ropes vertically suspended in the water.

Testing and possibly modifying the machinery is just one of multiple angles in trying to develop a market for farmed scallops from Maine, according to Hugh Cowperthwaite of Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises Inc.

CEI, which is administering the three-year grant, also plans to conduct market research to gauge the potential demand for scallops grown in such a manner, and to write a “how-to” manual for interested aquaculturists, Cowperthwaite added. Rope-grown scallops likely would have to serve a specialty market to be economically viable, he said, because they cannot match the high volume and relatively low production expense of the Northeast’s wild scallop fishery.

“Could scallop farming be a sustainable new job-creating industry for Maine? We think so and we’re setting out to prove it,” Cowperthwaite said in a prepared statement, adding that the pilot program will help identify the economics and profitability of growing scallops in captivity. “We are tracking equipment costs, shipping and maintenance of the machinery, labor costs, scallop growth rates and selling scallops throughout the value chain.”

Growing scallops in captivity and possibly developing different varieties is “a diversification strategy” for Maine’s existing scallop industry, he added.

Demand for scallops has increased substantially over the past decade, pushing up market prices as Maine has revamped its management scheme for its wild scallop fishery in order to make it more sustainable. The biggest change has been the establishment of a rotating closure system, in which areas along the coast are closed for two years and then open for one, in order to allow fished areas to recover.

Market demand for scallops far exceeds what Maine can supply, with the vast majority of scallops caught in federal waters off Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Maine fishermen on average were paid $8 per pound for scallop meat in 2010, but over the past six years the price has averaged close to $11.50. Maine’s 2017 scallop harvest value of $9.3 million was the state’s highest in 24 years.

Maine’s scallop fishing season runs each year from December through mid-April.

Bangs Island Mussels and Pine Point Oyster hope the popularity of wild-caught scallops will translate to a farmed product. The firms are using machinery developed and produced by Japanese firm Mutsu Kaden Tokki, which CEI paid for with the help of $137,500 in grant funds from Maine Technology Institute, in an attempt to streamline some of the labor involved in farming scallops.

But the firms first have to determine if the machinery, which was developed to handle Japanese scallops, can be modified to process those native to the East Coast, which are smaller and more fragile than their Japanese counterparts.

One machine sorts the scallops by size and another drills a hole into each scallop’s “ear,” or hinge. Workers then have to manually insert plastic pins into the holes, evenly space them out along the aquaculture lines and then attach them.

A third type of machine is used later in the process to clean the scallops of organic material that accumulates on their shells while they are growing at lease sites in the ocean.

Matt Moretti, president of Bangs Island Mussels, said Thursday that the method of growing scallops on ropes has been proven in Japan to be better than growing them in cages resting on the ocean floor. Individual scallops need more room than other bivalve species such as oysters or clams, he said, and can damage each other if they are clumped together in high concentrations.

If the equipment proves effective for Atlantic sea scallops, it could provide a key boost in ensuring the firms can consistently produce enough farmed scallops to interest buyers, Moretti said.

“It makes a huge difference, especially with the machines to assist,” he said of growing scallops on ropes. “We’re super excited about this project. It could be a huge boost to the Maine economy.”

Cowperthwaite said the volume of scallops farmed in Maine likely would remain well below the hundreds of thousands of pounds of wild scallop meat harvested in Maine each year, which itself is but a fraction of the tens of millions of pounds of scallops harvested annually further offshore along the East Coast.

Already there are marketing efforts to differentiate scallops caught close to the Maine coast from those harvested further offshore. Togue Brawn, a scallop dealer who has developed a small market for selling wild-caught Maine scallops in the shell, will advise CEI and the aquaculture firms on how to try to create similar niche demand for farmed scallops, according to Cowperthwaite.

Because scallop farmers aren’t held to the same conservation measures as fishermen, he said, they could feasibly sell scallops smaller than the 4-inch minimum size limit for wild scallops. Farmers also may be able to produce different varieties, as oyster farmers do, and to develop different kinds of products in-the-shell, he said. Fishermen, unless they are specifically exempted, are required to shuck and discard their scallop shells and guts at sea.

Cowperthwaite said if viable growing methods for scallops can be developed, he is confident that Maine scallop farmers will find a niche for their product.

“The stars will eventually align here,” he said.

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