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Aquaculture Exhibits Tremendous Potential in Maine

Apr 12, 2017
Issue 1 - 2017

In the United States aquaculture is gaining increasing attention as coastal fishing communities explore opportunities to preserve their working waterfronts and diversify their economies. Similarly, aquaculture can provide commercial fishermen faced with declining fish stocks an opportunity to diversify their revenue and to allow fishing families and future generations the opportunity to continue making a living on the water.

A report released in October 2016 highlights major growth opportunities for Maine, specifically around cultured (farmed in the ocean or coastal waterbody) mussels, oysters, and scallops. The analysis, conducted by the Massachusetts-based Hale Group in partnership with GMRI, and advised by a team of industry leaders, found tremendous market potential for these products. For example, it predicts that the state’s shellfish aquaculture industry will grow from its current $6.5 million value to $30 million annually by 2030. The research found that the marketplace recognizes Maine’s cultured shellfish as the gold standard, with its cultured oysters, mussels, and scallops fetching the highest prices in the U.S.

The findings point to several key factors that uniquely position Maine to grow markets for shellfish. First, the Maine brand already exists (consumers know and love Maine seafood). Second, Maine’s farmed shellfish are recognized in the marketplace as the highest quality due to both growing conditions and utilization of best aquaculture practices, which translates to a premium price.   Additionally, Maine’s close proximity to major distribution centers in Portland and Boston allows for efficient transport to U.S. markets. Further, Maine is close to large cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and the D.C. metro area where high volumes of shellfish are consumed. Given that only 0.01% of Maine’s coastal waters are currently under lease for aquaculture, the report concludes there is ample space for expansion at a scale that fits with other coastal uses.  Finally, Maine is a leader in best aquaculture practices, which will help ensure continued production of top quality products as the industry grows.

Following are some findings from the market analysis by species.

Oysters

The landed value of domestic oysters in 2015 was $234 million, 95% of which was from aquaculture. Maine’s farmed oysters (specifically, eastern oysters) had a value of $4.1 million with an average price of $0.58 per oyster. Nationally, average price per piece varies from $0.29 to $0.68, with oysters from the Northeast commanding the highest price. Within the Northeast, Maine oysters generally have the highest value. By 2030, the Maine oyster industry is projected to grow from 7M to 26M pieces, and from $4.1M to $16M landed value.

The analysis predicts that Maine’s oyster farmers will experience a price decline in the next 5 years as supply in competing regions increases. The report recommends several strategies to mitigate these price declines including marketing efforts to build on and expand the Maine brand, expanding distribution beyond local markets, making product available in the winter, and improving efficiency. 

Mussels

In 2015, Americans consumed $70 million worth of live mussels.  Maine farmed blue mussels had a $1.35 million value and, similar to oysters, Maine’s farmed mussels fetch a premium price due to their perceived higher quality (e.g., less brittle shells, higher meat content, cleaner) than competing products. The average price varies between farming methods with rope grown mussels commanding the highest price at $2.10, followed by bottom culture at $1.55.  By comparison, wild mussels were sold for $0.90/lb.

Maine has a significant opportunity to displace PEI mussels, which have established markets in the Northeast and northern U.S.  The research found that PEI farmed mussels, once considered to be the gold standard, are perceived as having declining quality. This gives Maine a tremendous opportunity to steal market share by providing a higher quality product. 

Sea Scallops

Sea scallops are not farmed in commercial volumes in Maine or the U.S., so the analysis looked at market dynamics of Maine’s wild fishery as a proxy.

Approximately $730 million worth of sea scallops were consumed in the U.S. in 2015.  The U.S. wild sea scallop fishery (~$380M landed value) filled approximately half of the demand, with imports (~$350M) accounting for the rest.  The imported scallops – coming from China, Japan, and Argentina – are smaller and of lesser quality than domestic scallops, according to interviews with supply chain stakeholders. This perceived quality difference would make imported product easy to displace in the marketplace, according to the report.  In other words, domestic supply could almost double without exceeding demand.

Similar to its oysters and mussels, Maine sea scallops achieved the highest price per pound at $12.70 versus the $12.36 average for the region.  Maine’s fishery is seasonal with the bulk of landings from November to April, so there is an opportunity to provide farmed product when wild sea scallops from Maine are not available.  

The report concludes that supply-demand dynamics and premium price point of Maine wild-caught sea scallops position Maine to be a growth leader in farmed scallop production.  However, achieving sufficient scale will require investment in scallop aquaculture capabilities with techniques optimized before scale can be achieved.