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History of Aquaculture in Maine

Commercial finfish aquaculture began in Maine in 1970 near the midcoast town of Wiscasset. Richard Gower, Evelyn Sawyer, and Gary Towle formed Maine Salmon Farms, the first commercial salmonid pen culture operation on the east coast, and the second in the U.S. They raised rainbow trout and coho salmon in floating net pens and fed them a homemade concoction of shrimp and herring waste from a local fish-meal plant. High water temperatures during the summer and low water temperatures during the winter, particularly the superchill of 1976, were factors in the demise of their business.

Also in the 1970s, Robert Mant started Maine Sea Farms on Cape Rosier. He raised coho salmon and rainbow trout in pens that floated in the flooded pit of a former 300-foot-deep, open-pit, copper and zinc mine. In another part of Penobscot Bay in 1973-74, Spencer Fuller started a Vinalhaven-based company, Fox Island Fisheries, which was probably the first strictly marine pen salmonid operation in the Northeast. By 1975, FullerŐs company was producing 40,000 pounds of fish in Hurricane Sound. The combination of the 1976 superchill, when the seawater temperature at the site dropped to 29.5ˇ F., and the low price for fish caused the company to close by 1979.

In 1981, Edward Myers, of Abandoned Farm, Inc. on the Damariscotta River, obtained the first lease from the Maine Department of Marine Resources allowing the culture of salmonids and shellfish at his site. Using 5,000 coho salmon, Myers set up pens about eight miles from the open sea. That winter, water temperatures plummeted to 28ˇF. and only 150 fish survived. Myers abandoned finfish cultivation to concentrate on mussels in suspension culture.

By the early 1980s, after a team of researchers from St. Andrews (New Brunswick) Biological Station successfully raised salmon in Passamaquoddy Bay, pen-rearing techniques were refined, and raising salmon and rainbow trout became a promising new business in Downeast Maine. In Eastport, where the decline of the local herring fisheries made salmon aquaculture a welcomed new industry, Ocean Products Inc. (OPI) was established in 1982. By 1984, the company had 12 pens holding about 63,000 fish, most of which were destined for the Boston market. Some of the fish were also smoked and sold through L.L. Bean's mail-order catalog. A second generation of sea farmers in the Eastport area came mostly from former employees of OPI, from local families formerly involved in herring fishing, or were graduates of an aquaculture training course at Washington County Vocational School. These people formed small, mostly family-run businesses in 1986-87. Their examples were soon followed by subsidiaries of large firms, some of them multinationals including Maine Coast Nordic Enterprises, Sea Farm Lubec, Atlantic Salmon Maine, and Mariculture Products, Ltd.

Currently, 18 companies along the Maine coast, from the Canadian border to Muscongus Bay in the midcoast region, raise about 14 million pounds of salmon each year. Due to declining salmon prices and competition from overseas companies in the mid-1990s, Maine fish farmers and scientists are researching nutrition and feeding methods, predator controls, and alternative species of fish for culture.


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This page was last updated on November 15, 2002