What is Aquaculture?


Common Definition: Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, shellfish and even plants. The term aquaculture refers to the cultivation of both marine and freshwater species and can range from land-based to open-ocean production. The jurisdiction of The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), and the focus of this website, is the farming of marine species within the coastal waters of Maine. Mariculture is another term used for the farming of marine organisms in their natural habitats.

Legal Definition: (taken from 12 M.R.S.A §6072): The culture or husbandry of marine organisms by any person. Storage or any other form of impounding or holding of wild marine organisms, without more, shall not qualify as aquaculture. In order to qualify as aquaculture a project must involve affirmative action by the lessee to improve the growth rate or quality of the marine organism.

Types of Leases and their Descriptions

Aquaculture in Maine

Aquaculture has been present within the coastal waters of Maine since the 1800s. In fact, laws governing fish and shellfish culture date back to 1905 (Chapter 88 of the Seventy-second Legislature of The State of Maine). The leasing of Maine waters for the private culture of marine fish, shellfish and plants, however, has a much more recent history.

In 1973, the Legislature passed a set of aquaculture laws designed to manage a fledgling industry. These laws gave The Department of Marine Resources (Department) authority to lease state-owned waters to private interests for the purpose of conducting aquaculture activities. Then, in 1983, the Department established aquaculture regulations (Chapter 2) to implement the authority of these laws.

The first official aquaculture lease was issued by the DMR in 1973. The farm was established by Ed Myers, a pioneer of shellfish aquaculture in Maine, for the purpose of cultivating salmonids and blue mussels (Mytilus edulis). Although finfish culture was unsuccessful, warm water temperatures and high productivity made The Damariscotta River an ideal site for growing shellfish. Several others followed in Mr. Myers’ footsteps and in the 1980s mussel and oyster (Crassotrea virginica and Ostrea edulis) aquaculture underwent a period of tremendous growth and expansion. While its roots are in the Damariscotta River, mussel farming expanded, in the 1980s, to the east with farms popping up in the Penobscot Bay area. Today, mussel farming spans the coast from Casco Bay east to the Jonesport area. Although cultured in estuarine waters along the coast, The Damariscotta River continues to be the premier location for oyster farming in Maine. Clams, scallops and urchins are also cultivated, on a smaller scale, in various locations throughout the state.

The development of finfish aquaculture lagged behind shellfish by 10 years or more. In the early 1970s coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were being raised in floating pens within the Wiscasset River and on Vinalhaven Island. The first solely finfish aquaculture lease was issued in 1981 to Evelyn Sawyer for the ranching of pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) and chum (Oncorhynchus keta) salmon in southern Maine. Ranching is different from traditional net-pen aquaculture in that fish are raised in marine net-pens until they smoltify and imprint on the lease site; they are then released with the intent of harvesting upon their return to the site for spawning. Fish ranching never gained footing in Maine and it wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that net-pen fish farming took hold. In 1984, Ocean Products Inc. established farms in the cold waters of Cobscook Bay. Since then Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) farming has spread west to the Blue Hill Bay region.