To Avoid An Empty Promise

by Paul Molyneaux

Aquaculture is the next new thing on the Maine coast and students in the Eastern Maine Skippers Program have heard a lot about opportunities in mariculture, particularly in scallop and seaweed farming. An important question many are asking, though, is whether current aquaculture policy will lead to a loss of access for future fishermen, and a loss of economic benefits for coastal communities. 

Students are aware that Maine’s fisheries regulations are intended to prevent consolidation of access rights by requiring license holders to be on board vessels they own in most cases, and making licenses non-transferable. This is not the case with aquaculture in Maine. Aquaculture leases can be sold and consolidated as happened with Maine’s salmon farms, now all owned by one foreign company. 

Once promoted as a way for fishermen to diversify, create jobs, and reduce pressure on wild stocks, salmon farms began as locally owned operations, but they became consolidated in a decade and big companies automated most jobs out of existence. “My father made more money on the (ocean) real estate than he did growing salmon,” said the son of one of the original salmon famers. Will Maine’s young fishermen lose access rights to aquaculture lease speculators?

EMSP students eager to diversify and guarantee a future on the water have asked if seaweed farms in particular, could become a large-scale industry beyond their control. “Kelp is being promoted as food, but research indicates kelp is actually the new corn for ethanol production. This year, working with students, we have learned that everywhere around the world kelp farming on longlines is being promoted as a new source of biofuel, not food, with robots already being designed to do the work, and transgenic kelp in the pipeline. This is an economy of scale industry that if it succeeds will require many acres of production area, including areas now used for fishing.   

EMSP is preparing Maine students to be informed, critical thinkers, the future of the Maine fishery. They are asking questions:  will aquaculture regulations provide Maine’s future fishermen and coastal communities a say in the industry, as fisheries regulations do, or leave them watching the resources they rely on become the private property of any company, foreign or domestic, with deep enough pockets to buy up all the leases. If Japan has protections that ensure coastal communities benefit from scallop farms, for example, students looking at scallop farming are wondering why do we not have similar guarantees in Maine? 

Students are realizing that under current regulations there is no way to stop consolidation from happening, and seaweed farming may be particularly vulnerable. SEANET reps were at a seaweed farming workshop in February 2016 in Washington, DC, where one of the questions was: “How might we develop joint business models with multitrophic-aquaculture while still maintaining a long-term focus on fuels and chemicals?” Speakers at the meeting also referred to seaweed farming for food production as “a stepping stone to fuels and chemicals.” 

Many EMSP students want to move forward with aquaculture, whether for food or fuel, but without a policy that respects and protects their reliance on local resources we, as their teachers and guides, cannot assure them that they will not find themselves empty handed. What is the next step for Maine? How can we help Maine communities and these young people, who want to participate, enjoy the benefits of this growing aquaculture industry?

Audio Link to multitrophic aquaculture workshop comments regarding long-term focus on fuels and chemicals. https://arpae.energy.gov/sites/default/files/Macroalgae%20Workshop%20Summary%20Report_Final%20post%20to%20web.pdf#overlay-context=workshop/macroalgae-workshop%3Fq%3Dworkshop/macroalgae-workshop