New England Ocean Cluster incubating seafood innovation through collaboration

A group of experts from the agriculture and aquaculture industries meet at the New England Ocean Cluster

The New England Ocean Cluster is continuing its mission of using a collaborative model to advance the blue economy, with an initiative to bring together representatives of the agriculture and aquaculture sectors at its headquarters in the U.S. state of Maine.

The cluster was founded seven years ago, but didn’t finish its collaborative working space in Portland, Maine, dubbed “The Hús,” until 2020 – just months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, it has begun to start hosting events again, bringing together people from multiple industries as part of its mission to increase collaboration and foster new ideas.

In one of its last events before a brief hiatus, The Hús hosted seafood advocate Barton Seaver, Atlantic Sea Farms President and CEO Briana Warner, and Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) Executive Director Sarah Alexander in a panel session called “Purposeful Growth,” with an angle at how aquaculture can take lessons from the long history of sustainability-minded terrestrial farming.

Bringing the two industries together is something that needs to be done more often, Seaver said.

“What’s so unique about this is that seafood, despite being the only food that we eat that has the word ‘food’ in it, doesn’t often get invited into food conversations,” Seaver, the founder and chief education officer at Maine's Coastal Culinary Academy, said. “People also don’t typically wade into our waters of conversation, and there’s a lot to cross-pollinate.”

MOFGA is the oldest and largest statewide organic advocacy group in the country. It formed in 1971 in response to the growing industrialization of agriculture, and it created the first ever organic farming certification in 1972.

Most recently, MOFGA has made its first forays into certifying aquaculture – and Atlantic Sea Farms became the first aquaculture operation certified to MOFGA’s organic standards. Alexander said that effort stemmed from MOFGA reaching out to Seaver and starting to learn what it could do in the seafood space.

“I reached out to Barton and said, 'Hey, let’s talk about the intersection of agriculture and oceans,’” Alexander said. “We had no idea where that conversation would go, and we’re super excited to start that conversation.”

The core drive behind the collaboration, the panelists said, is understanding how the lessons learned in agriculture can be used to make positive decisions in aquaculture moving forward.

“How can we learn from what we’ve learned in land-based agriculture?” Alexander said. “How can we make sure we don’t go to a place where we have to then create a movement to react to what has happened, what has gone wrong, in aquaculture?”

Warner is taking that drive and applying it to the foundations of Atlantic Sea Farms' business model. In Maine, the primary means of making money on the water now is through lobstering – the state’s lobster industry hit a record value in 2021 of USD 724.9 million (EUR 693.8 million). While it seems like the fishery is on the upswing for now, the Gulf of Maine is also warming faster than 99 percent of the ocean bodies in the world – and many other species previously caught by Maine fishermen are no longer present.

The current status of fishing in Maine, Warner said, has amounted to a situation where a huge part of the state’s coastal economy is supported by one species – similar to monoculture in agriculture.

“We have never been in a situation in the coast of Maine, or any coastal community in the United States, where we’ve been relying on monoculture, and that’s all we have now, that’s it, it’s lobster,” Warner said. “Even if it does wonderful for the next 40 years, that is [an] incredibly vulnerable [situation].”

She emphasized the fact that many fishermen might still have shrimp nets on their lawn – the state’s shrimp fishery effectively collapsed less than a decade ago.

The business model at Atlantic Sea Farms, Warner said, is taking fishermen and giving them the means to farm kelp via aquaculture, giving an additional income stream while reducing their reliance on lobster. So far, fishermen have been receptive, and the company harvested just under a million pounds of kelp in its latest harvest – a significant increase from its early days of just 40,000 pounds.

While the project has been a success, there are still obstacles in its way. Warner said the biggest obstacle is pushback from rich summer residents in Maine who don’t want to look at a working waterfront.

“The summer people are out there, and they don’t want to see it when they have their idealized vision of what Maine is for the two weeks that make them feel really good that they live in a community that they feel like is beneath them,” Warner said. “That attitude, it’s not only disgusting, but it’s exhausting, and it actually affects our ability to work.”

Seaver said that the two systems – aquaculture and agriculture – need to be aligned in such a way that Americans identify as strongly with aquaculture as they do with the idealized vision of a land-based farm.

“If you ask an American to close their eyes and picture a small family farm, they get it. The undulating hills bathed in autumn splendor, setting sun with perfectly patterned rows of crops, leading the eye towards the picket fence, the white house with the paint chipping and the red barn with its color fading, like, 'Hot damn, right?' This is literally the fabric with which settler America has been woven,” Seaver said. “But if you ask people to picture a water farm, they’d stand on a dock and gaze wistfully at a wine-dark sea and think that it happens somewhere else, executed by someone ‘other.’”  

Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource


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