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A fish tale A Maine story of aquaculture research, entrepreneurship and education by Beth Staples
A dozen middle-school youths in the School of Roots at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde, Maine, helped Acadia Harvest Inc., sell the California amberjacks raised at UMaine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research.

A dozen middle-school youths in the School of Roots at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde, Maine, helped Acadia Harvest Inc., sell the California amberjacks raised at UMaine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research.

On a sunny, frigid February afternoon, self-described foodie John McConochie buys a California amberjack at Herring Gut Learning Center’s (HGLC) School of Roots in Port Clyde, Maine. McConochie, owner of Green Bean Catering, is eager to roast the fish in his wood-fired oven that evening.

While California amberjacks are generally found in the Pacific and Indian oceans, it would be difficult for McConochie to find a fresher fish unless he caught one himself. It is one of 36 California amberjacks harvested that morning at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research (CCAR) in Franklin, Maine, 127 miles northeast of the fishing village of Port Clyde. The 36 fish, which tip the scale at about 4.5 pounds each — 160 pounds collectively — had been packed in fresh snow and trucked to Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a cooperative perched adjacent to a dock on the bay, next to HGLC.

Since Glen Libby helped form the cooperative about four years ago, he’s filleted more than a few fish. But this is the first time the fisherman has taken a knife to a California amberjack.

Libby isn’t fazed. Earlier that afternoon, he watched a YouTube video demonstrating how to fillet the fish that can be found on restaurant menus in a roll with jalapeño, cilantro and sautéed cashews.

Libby peers over the top of his glasses, sharpens a knife and gets to work on the first fish.

“All fish are pretty similar,” he says. But this one was special to a number of people.

More than a few dreamers, planners, old salts, young fry, marine scientists and investors had monitored its 18-month journey from a hatchery in New Hampshire in 2012 to a processing facility in Port Clyde. For most of the previous 18 months, this fish and 999 other California amberjacks had lived in recirculating 72-degree Fahrenheit ocean water in 300-gallon tanks in CCAR’s indoor facility on Taunton Bay.

During that time, the robust swimmers grew from a weight of about 3 grams by eating certified commercial feed selected for optimum nutrition and health, with no antibiotics required. In the wild, California amberjacks can weigh as much as 110 pounds and measure 5 feet in length. Chefs around the country have applauded the taste of California amberjacks from the same group purchased by Chris Heinig, Tap Pryor and Ed Robinson.

Heinig, Pryor and Robinson — principals of Acadia Harvest Inc. (AHI) — anticipate that in two years, many others will also be eating California amberjacks grown in Maine. Their plan is to farm them.

I don’t believe we could learn any more from one batch of fish. We’ve been growing along with the fish. We hope this puts us ahead of the business growth curve.”
Chris Heinig

By 2016, it’s expected that AHI initially will produce as much as 450 metric tons of fish annually in Maine’s first commercial-scale indoor production facility that will use direct ocean water and produce little to no waste. The indoor ocean of sorts may be in Corea, Maine, where AHI has a purchase option on the site of a former naval facility.

While AHI is striving to break new ground in Maine with a recirculating aquaculture system, closed-loop production structures have been in operation for a decade or more in Saudi Arabia, Norway, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Canada and Japan.

In the next two years, AHI (formerly called RAS Corp. — Recirculating Aquaculture Systems) will be doing more planning, research and preparation. And like AHI’s efforts the previous two years, much of it will be done in collaboration with CCAR. UMaine’s aquaculture research center has been instrumental in helping AHI prepare by providing sophisticated marine recirculation facilities, expertise in recirculation technology and business incubation.

CCAR director Nick Brown, who earned his doctorate in aquaculture at the University of Stirling, Institute of Aquaculture in Scotland, is an authority on commercial aquaculture. Head of CCAR since 2001, Brown has designed a number of large-scale recirculation systems, including the center’s 24,000-square-foot marine hatchery.

Brown and UMaine staff acquire juvenile fish and other marine necessities, and assist with applications for research funding. They help AHI manage projects and plan for its full-scale commercial farm, and lend expertise in developing business plans and securing investment capital.

It’s one-stop shopping for those serious about entering the fish-farming business.

“Nick and his staff are absolutely phenomenal,” says  Heinig, CEO of AHI. “Their expertise and knowledge are extremely useful. He knows what to do and then gets it done. He gives us confidence to move forward to where we’ve never gone before.”

Heinig — whose resume includes oyster farming, managing a shellfish hatchery, and designing and constructing a fish hatchery in France — says he’s learned a lot about black sea bass and California amberjack, from growth rates to proper feeding and from temperature control to pH tolerance.

“I don’t believe we could learn any more from one batch of fish,” says Heinig of the California amberjacks AHI purchased in 2012. “We’ve been growing along with the fish. We hope this puts us ahead of the business growth curve.”

About 60 of the original 1,000 New Hampshire hatchery fish have been added to CCAR’s brood stock, which are in an adjacent building at CCAR. Some California amberjacks there weigh as much as 30 pounds each.

“We have to have access to a convenient, reliable source of juveniles and we want to keep improving the gene pool group,” Heinig says, adding that like buying fresh vegetables from a local farmer, consumers can be similarly confident when buying high-quality fish raised close to home.

AHI, Heinig says, is considering using gill tags with bar codes so consumers can access a host of information about the fish they purchase, including the date the fish egg was fertilized, where the fish was farmed and the date it was harvested.

At CCAR, AHI also is working on approaches to dealing with waste and aquafeed made from ocean forage fish.

“It’s a moral and ethical obligation,” says Pryor, whom President Lyndon Johnson named to a commission that created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Organic farmers have demonstrated the value of biodiversity and Pryor says aquaculture can do the same. AHI is running fish growth trials incorporating oysters, sandworms, seaweed and algae. The fish waste serves as a nutrient for the other species, and is consumed within an ecologically balanced system.

AHI is striving to develop a nutritional plant-based feed to raise the farmed fish. Currently, fish meal and oil are major components of commercial aquafeeds, made using wild-caught forage fish. Anchovies, herring and menhaden are overharvested in some oceans and it’s a priority for aquafarmers to find new feed formulations using other components.

Finding solutions and prepping to become a commercial-scale aquafarm take capital. Funding, to date, has come from a variety of sources, including Maine Technology Institute (MTI), Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI) and the National Science Foundation.

Both private nonprofits — MTI in Brunswick and CEI in Wiscasset — invest in innovation to help create high-quality jobs, and economically and environmentally healthy communities.

Representatives from MTI and CEI joined Pryor, Heinig and Robinson to watch Libby fillet the fish. Students from the School of Roots at HGLC also crowded around Libby in the processing room. The middle-schoolers had presold the 36 harvested fish to families and area stores.

School of Roots students first met the AHI crew a couple of years ago. Tony Barrett, AHI’s commercial adviser, talked with Brown about AHI being the first in Maine to grow black sea bass and amberjack in recirculating systems. CCAR was already growing sandworms, sea urchins and cold-water marine fish, including Atlantic halibut and Atlantic cod in these types of systems. And HGLC was already growing tilapia in an aquaponics system that includes plants and freshwater fish.

So AHI officials toured the aquaponics fish hatchery and greenhouse at HGLC, a nonprofit organization that strives to sustain and strengthen the economic and social vitality of Port Clyde and other coastal communities.

Two days a week, 12 middle-school youth in RSU 13’s alternative education program attend the School of Roots at HGLC, where, as part of their studies, they grow, harvest and market tilapia and lettuce. AHI officials initially asked the youth to help them market black sea bass. After that venture’s success, AHI asked the youths to sell California amberjacks.

Eighth grader Will Saunders says he enjoys the hands-on learning, one-on-one instruction and motivation he receives at HGLC. Lead teacher Ann Boover says the active-learning approach and individualized attention have helped many students academically thrive, as well as develop confidence and social interaction skills.

While Port Clyde is a picturesque coastal village, all is not idyllic. Slashed education budgets, worrisome school dropout rates, and depleted fishing and employment opportunities are challenges there, as they are in other communities.

To help people succeed in the face of these challenges, HGLC provides academic courses that mesh with real-world experience, and encourages preservation and economic development in coastal communities.

With UMaine, AHI, HGLC and funding agencies pooling their strengths — vision, business acumen, innovative technology, research knowledge, funding and traditional customs — a number of Mainers may benefit when a new-look, indoor fishing village is open for business in Down East, Maine.

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Spring 2014

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