ROCKPORT — It was 20 years ago that the Maine International Trade Center helped send a delegation from Maine to Aomori Prefecture in the north of Japan to get a peek at the secrets of that country’s highly successful scallop farming industry.
Among the delegates were a couple of state employees, a couple of fishermen and a couple of scientists. About a dozen in all.
Over the course of a week, the crew from Maine visited sites on the waters of the relatively shallow Mutsu Bay where fishermen raised millions of scallops each year, some broadcast on the bottom, others hanging individually on submerged lines from tiny pins drilled through the “ear” of their shells, others grown in hanging “lantern nets” divided into several levels to allow the scallops more space as the grew larger. There were also visits to fishermen’s cooperatives to inspect early versions of machinery used to sort scallops by size; trips to processing plants where farmed scallops (whole in many cases) were turned into dried, frozen or other value-added products, and trips to government-funded scientific institutions devoted to improving scallop culture.
At the time, there was nothing even remotely like that in Maine as far as growing scallops was concerned, but times have changed.
Speaking at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum March 2, Hugh Cowperthwaite of the Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI) said a market analysis of the prospects for a Maine farm-raised sea scallop industry was promising though potentially risky.
Chefs and consumers say they would pay a premium price for high-quality scallops that could come to market even when the Maine fishing season was closed. (Scallop fishing in state waters is generally allowed from December to early April.)
The downside, though, is that growing scallops is labor and capital intensive. The machinery used for ear hanging is currently available only through its Japanese developer and extremely costly. Scallop farming is also subject to the usual environmental risks that can affect any aquaculture operation as well as risks unique to scallops. The bivalves accumulate the naturally occurring toxins that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) and retain them in their mantle and organs much longer than other shellfish such as clams and oysters. That’s why Maine law requires wild-caught scallops to be shucked at sea with only the adductor muscle brought ashore to be sold.
Among the presenters at the Fisherman’s Forum program were two veterans of that long-ago trip to Japan: Stonington fisherman Marsden Brewer, who, with his son Robert, is probably Maine’s pre-eminent scallop grower, and Dana Morse, a marine extension agent with Maine Sea Grant based at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole.
Brewer began experimenting with scallop farming even before his visit to Japan, collecting wild spat (juvenile scallops) from the waters around Stonington and trying to find a good way to raise them to market size. Morse has been a leading proselytizer for scallop aquaculture in Maine. Working through the university and sea grant, he has sought out relatively inexpensive materials that can be used for spat collection and growout, and looked at issues such as when and where biotoxins that impact scallops may be prevalent.
That work, which is available basically gratis to interested sea farmers, has borne fruit. Nearly 100 were in the audience for the Forum session and most of them were either already involved with trying to grow scallops or were about to be. When Morse asked how many in the group knew what a lantern net was, the response was virtually unanimous.
“That wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago,” he said smiling.
While the industry is still in its infancy, some farmed Maine scallops, raised by Brewer, have already been introduced to the market by the Edgecomb-based Glidden Point Oyster Farms. Ryan McPherson said his company had introduced a new product to chefs who were enthusiastic about being able to get Maine scallops out of season and live, not just shucked. Scallops harvested at Brewer’s farm site off Stonington on Tuesday were shipped on Wednesday, usually by direct delivery, and consumed before their optimum four-day shelf-life ended.
As well as the small operation went this year, farmed scallops are in “a competitive market,” McPherson said, battling for chefs’ attention against products such as bay scallops, Pacific coast scallops and imports.
“It’s definitely a boutique market,” McPherson said. The next step, he said, is “understanding our capabilities” to know how regular the source of supply is and how to handle inventory, “but we’re super positive and optimistic.”