Courtesy of Cooke Aquaculture

For centuries, Maine’s seawater and coastal rivers had an abundance of Atlantic Salmon. The region’s history speaks of fabulous salmon runs, the Wabanaki and early settlers relied on these salmon runs for their prosperity. Atlantic Salmon, often referred to as the “King of Fish”, were a prized catch for their flavorful red flesh, however, due to declining stocks, the commercial Atlantic Salmon fishery ended in Maine in 1948 and sportfishing for Atlantic Salmon ended in 1999. 

Cooke Aquaculture began in 1985 when the Cooke family, who for generations has made a living working on the waters of the Atlantic, made the move into a new experimental program of raising fish in the ocean. Coastal communities in Maine and Eastern Canada had relied on fisheries for their livelihood, particularly the herring industry. When the Cooke family began with one site and 5,000 fish, the industry was just beginning in North America.    

Cooke Aquaculture began farming Atlantic Salmon in Maine in 2004, when the family-owned business acquired three freshwater hatcheries, sea sites and a processing facility in Machiasport. They began selling its Gulf of Maine Salmon under the True North Seafood brand shortly after. Research and innovation have always underpinned Cooke’s approach to salmon farming, in Maine and beyond; the company is always developing tools and techniques focused on the health of the fish and their environment, led by a team of professionals who are always looking for better methods of operating.  

Innovation and enhancing the livelihoods of coastal communities is what continues to drive Cooke Aquaculture today in producing fresh, healthy, locally raised salmon. Thanks to this emphasis on R&D, the company has grown from its beginnings of one small farm and one hatchery to a global company with operations around the world. Here in Maine, Cooke Aquaculture’s salmon farms are regulated and approved by 14 different State and Federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of the Environmental Protection. Cooke works closely with the University of Maine and other research organizations in the state to develop innovative solutions and advanced technology that support its operations here.   

Dave Morang is Cooke Aquaculture’s Business Manager, based in Eastport, Maine. Dave grew up in Eastport and served on the City’s council. “The innovations I have seen in my 30-plus years in aquaculture in Maine are incredible.  We don’t do things like we used to but, who does?  Much in the same way no one uses a wooden lobster trap or a typewriter any longer, we have made improvements to every aspect of our system. We’re now able to tell our children and grandchildren that they can have a career in coastal Maine using the skills they use with their computers and video game consoles.” 

Two of the most recent innovative technologies being used in Maine now are our remote-controlled cleaning systems and our central feeding system, which allow for these two aspects of farming to be operated remotely by technicians using advanced programs and equipment. 

As recently as ten years ago, nets were changed periodically through the growth cycle and brought to shore for cleaning. Today, a remote operated net cleaning (RONC) system is used to keep any seaweed growth and mollusks off the nets allowing better waterflow. “Net cleaning today using remote cleaning technology is better environmentally for the fish and is less physical work for our site team,” explains Morang. 

The new feeding systems use underwater cameras and offer the ability to feed on a more consistent and frequent schedule. This allows for better monitoring of the fish behavior and growth and makes it a safer working environment for those on-site. Technicians monitor fish behavior to guide how much, and how often, to feed the fish depending on where they are in their growth cycle. Sensors in the water provide information about the water temperature and oxygen, and with the help of laser measurement technology, fish growth is monitored to ensure proper development. Regular scuba dives on site check the health of the fish, netting system and sea bottom, and state regulators ensure testing is done on a regular basis. Cooke’s veterinarians and ecologists are also constantly verifying fish and the environmental health.

“I can remember driving in Maine there was a highway sign saying, ‘Welcome to Maine’ with a man dressed in oil gear holding a can of sardines,” said Morang. “The City of Eastport, like many other towns along the coast, had herring processing, that was the industry my father and I worked in until the processing plant closed, just as aquaculture was just getting going. Aquaculture is an industry that not only has allowed me to stay in Maine and raise my family here, it has been interesting and fulfilling to see the innovations in the industry and the ways Cooke has supported rural coastal communities in the state. I’m always proud to tell people what we do and how much innovation there has been in the industry.”

A commitment to innovate and grow along with continued investment working with researchers have allowed the family business to grow and prosper, developing a world class operation that has fostered and supported many businesses in Maine.

“We are constantly innovating and improving, we are testing new technologies right now, that will make our great system even better,” says Morang. “Over the last 20 years, lobster catches have gone up, tourism has increased, house prices are strong and we have shown we can work together in coastal Maine offering a hopeful future for our families and community.”

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