Maine is Uniquely Positioned to Become a Global Leader in Aquaculture: MTI Investments in Aquaculture & Marine Eclipsed All Other Sectors Last Year

Brian Whitney MTI President

Recently, I had an opportunity to present MTI’s perspective on Maine’s aquaculture industry, as well as its inherent strengths, opportunities, and challenges.  The occasion presented me a chance to dig a little deeper into the data regarding MTI’s investments in the sector, as well as other related studies and research about the industry.

While MTI invests across the state’s seven targeted technology sectors, some encouraging trends have emerged the last couple of years in the aquaculture and marine space.  In FY19, for example, aquaculture and marine awards from MTI ranked second among the seven sectors, eclipsing biotechnology, and only trailing information technology. In FY20, for the first time in memory, aquaculture and marine funding awards ranked first among the seven sectors, with information technology and biotechnology trailing in second and third place respectively.

Additionally, MTI had $2MM remaining from a $45MM bond it administered in 2018 and issued a request for proposals for the $2MM in early 2020.  Perhaps not surprisingly, MTI received 84 proposals seeking, in the aggregate, $25MM in funding.  What was interesting, however, was that of the 84 proposals MTI received, 33 of them came from the aquaculture and marine sector – – almost 3 times that of any other sector.

So, it is clear that Maine’s aquaculture industry has undergone significant growth and diversification in recent years, and is creating new jobs and economic opportunities in our state.

What’s more, the companies in the sector are amazing and innovative.  MTI has one award recipient, Running Tide, that is developing a climate change solution by using kelp to sequester carbon.  It has another, American Unagi, that is growing glass eels to maturity – – rather than seeing the valuable commodity shipped to Asia and back – – for the lucrative sushi industry in the US.  MTI has also supported countless mussel, seaweed, oyster, scallop, sea urchin, ornamental fish, and other aquaculture projects in Maine.  This is an industry that holds much economic promise.  In fact, according to a study conducted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, it has been noted that we could add 1,000 jobs in aquaculture over the next 10 years.  So, the potential is significant.

As the recently released 10-year Maine Economic Development Strategy indicated, Maine is well-positioned to become a global leader in aquaculture. The Maine brand is respected world-wide, and our state has a reputation for quality and purity.  Given that our fishery is currently reliant on essentially one species, the Maine lobster, aquaculture provides us an opportunity to diversify and strengthen our fishing industry.

This past year, MTI has been particularly pleased to partner with FocusMaine and the University on the federally funded SEAMaine initiative to develop a much-needed industry-led roadmap and action plan for economic growth and greater resiliency in Maine’s marine economy, including both wild and farmed fish, and it could not have come at a more important time.

While the aquaculture sector has experienced strong growth in recent years, the global pandemic has severely impacted it given that it relies heavily on the restaurant industry.  As an example, roughly 90% of oysters are eaten in restaurants.  So, aquaculture farmers took a hit when eating establishments were closed for prolonged periods.  The industry, of course, faces other challenges and opportunities.  Like most industries in Maine, workforce is a serious challenge that inhibits growth.  The Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center & UMaine’s Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI) conduct a survey of aquaculture entities in Maine every couple of years and in their most recent survey, they asked what aquaculturalists would do if a $25,000 grant was available to address a critical issue facing their venture. They indicated that workforce development was the critical priority.

As the pandemic has illustrated, new and diversified markets for products are also needed.  The development of new value-added food and non-food products are warranted and essential.

As the recent demand for MTI funding has demonstrated, access to capital is needed as well due to the lag between investment and income.  Other challenges include regulations and the leasing process, harmonious coexistence with the wild fishery, marketing issues and community concerns, to name a few.

While there are clearly challenges to be met and surmounted, the aquaculture sector presents Maine an enormous opportunity for economic growth.  MTI is proud to play a small role in helping to strengthen and support it, along with Maine’s other targeted technology sectors.