BAR HARBOR—In mid-May, Alex de Koning climbed down into the hold of the Stewardship, the former military landing craft that he and his family have used for years to help grow mussels in Frenchman Bay, and sat at what looked like a giant sewing machine.
He grabbed a pair of scallops that had just been pulled out of the farm’s nets, lined up the small notches near the bivalves’ hinge and stepped on a foot pedal.
A drill bit dropped down and pierced through both shells. When the bit pulled up, a black pin followed back up through the holes and attached the scallops to a rope. Then a claw pulled the rope a few inches, setting up a spot for another pair of scallops to be attached.
This small three-act play took only a couple of seconds but could revolutionize the industry in Maine and cement scallops alongside its more famous farmed counterparts in the state.
What the machine does is quite simple, but it mechanizes what would otherwise be an incredibly labor-intensive process. It also speeds up the farming to a point where it could become more economically viable for sea farmers as well as other members of the working waterfront who might be looking to diversify their work during turbulent times.
“It has made a world of difference,” de Koning said.
Scallops are big business in the U.S. The species makes up the fourth most valuable fishery in the country, bringing in $572 million domestically in 2019.
But off the rocky coast of Maine, they don’t hold the same status. Scallop farms in Maine are still in their infancy, with people in the industry able to count their peers on their hands and rattle them off by their first names.
According to state data, scallops made up just 3 percent of commercial landings in 2020 and composed just 1 percent of the state’s commercial fisheries by value.
The de Konings and their company Acadia Aqua Farms have made a go of it for the last four years and hope to blaze a trail and help create a whole new sector in aquaculture.
Currently, farmed scallops are largely grown in nets, both in order to protect them from predators as well as to prevent the scallops from swimming off.
But, like a moody teenager, scallops like to have their personal space, which can be hard to come by in the nets.
So Acadia Aqua Farms started employing a Japanese technique known as the ear–hanging method to grow scallops.
After being grown in nets for their initial stages, scallops are then attached to a line and then strung up in the water like a set of Christmas lights. They’ll grow for another year or two before being harvested, with plenty of space, continuous flowing water and safe from predators on the bottom.
Ear hanging is not common in the U.S., beyond a few experimental scale operations. One of the impediments is the process takes a lot of work. Farmers have to drill holes into each scallop and then attach them to a rope – a two–step process that is as tedious as it is time consuming.
But the de Konings were able to purchase the new machine, the Towa-Denki Automatic Scallop Shell Ear–Hanging Machine, with funds from a grant from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, condensing the process into a single step and cutting that time down dramatically.
Even in May, when the crew only had been using it for a few days, it sped things up considerably. It also gives the crew much more flexibility when drilling, making it easy to pair up scallops no matter their size.
Before the machine, the crew could process maybe 200 or 300 scallops an hour onto the lines for ear hanging. Now they can do 600 to 900 an hour.
“That helps a lot,” de Koning said. “And I think we can get faster than that.”
The farm is breaking new ground. They are the first to import this type of machine in the U.S. and are doing the already uncommon technique, in the states at least, in deeper water than most.
“The Japanese experience is that to make ear hanging really work, you want to have at least 60 feet of water – 100 is better,” said Dana Morse, who has been working with aquaculture for decades with Maine Sea Grant. “Because the Maine coast is pretty heavily used, to find a place like that is relatively rare and so Alex and his family have done the homework to find that kind of location.”
Hugh Cowperthwaite, a senior program director at Coastal Enterprises Inc., said Acadia is quickly becoming the largest farm employing the ear-hanging technique and the two have been working together for about a year. Cowperthwaite has led trips to Japan to see their methods of farming and bring them back to Maine and he brought one of the first automated drilling machines to Maine.
Being one of the few ear–hanging farms on the coast, Acadia Aqua Farms is doing experiments with Morse and Cowperthwaite to compare different methods and growing processes and help guide scallop growers in the future.
And while they are something of pioneers, the farm is actively trying to get more people to grow scallops. The de Konings seem perfectly happy to share their knowledge and farming practices.
With how massive the scallop market is, if they can make it economically viable to farm, the market and competition is not going to be the issue. If more people start growing scallops in Maine, it could spur more infrastructure around the species and higher consumer awareness.
“It’s good for everyone if we can get more people online,” de Koning said.
Fiona de Koning, who runs the operations and sales, also saw scallops as a way to potentially diversify coastal communities’ workforces.
“It’s kind of an exciting new species for Maine to be able to grow,” she said. “We’re hoping this might be another tool in the toolbox for keeping working waterfronts working.”
Lobstermen, for instance, already have a lot of the skills and experience required to do this type of work, Fiona said, and she feared that if lobstering diminishes, the infrastructure and ancillary companies that currently service the lobster industry would diminish too. If that happens, aquaculture will feel the brunt as well because they use much of the same infrastructure and buy from those companies.
Fiona acknowledged that scallop farming might not be for everyone, but Acadia Aqua Farms is building on the work that Stonington scallop farmer Marsden Brewer has been doing. Fiona hoped that her team’s work with ear hanging could similarly help spark the creation of an entirely new scallop sector in Maine.
“It’s a future that I’m really optimistic about actually,” she said. “There’s a lot of dark and miserableness and sadness on the coast and really this is such a huge opportunity.”