Aquaculture companies in Maine are at the forefront of efforts to culture high-quality seafood products. While the industry has grown in the last five years, those seeking to further expand face serious challenges.

Two awards from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will support research projects designed to overcome the challenges and increase aquaculture production.

A grant of $908,015 will support research into sustainable post-harvest processing of aquacultured seaweed and development of value-added products.

Balunkeswar Nayak, assistant professor of food processing in the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture, will lead the research.

Other UMaine team members include Peter van Walsum in chemical and biological engineering; John Belding at the Advanced Manufacturing Center; and Jennifer Perry, Denise Skonberg and Mary Ellen Camire in the School of Food and Agriculture.

Interest in seaweed aquaculture is increasing in the U.S. for many reasons, including the demand for natural and local food. Maine is home to the first commercial kelp farm in the nation and has emerged as an industry leader.

A challenge faced by many seaweed growers, who have become successful at culturing kelp and other species, is what to do with the raw material after it’s harvested.

Working with industry partners in New England, Nayak and his team will develop systems for post-harvest processing of seaweed (such as drying, blanching and freezing).

The team also will study the quality, safety and consumer acceptability of various sea vegetable product forms.

The project goal is to increase technical capacity of Maine seaweed producers and processors to compete in the food marketplace.

A second award of $249,238 to Brian Beal of the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education will support study of large-scale culture of blue mussel seed or spat (larval or juvenile shellfish provided to commercial aquaculturists for grow-out).

Demand for mussels in the Northeast exceeds the current domestic supply.

In 2015, 9 million pounds of live mussels were imported from farms in Canada, especially Prince Edward Island. This represents about half of the U.S. market, and demand is projected to increase by nearly a third in the next decade.

Seed production is the main factor limiting expansion of mussel aquaculture in the U.S., in part because the success of capturing wild seed varies widely.

Beal, who also is a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, will use a combination of laboratory experiments and field trials to evaluate methods of collecting and culturing mussel seed (including cryopreservation or freezing) as well as compare the efficacy of different ropes used for settling larvae.

The projects were among the 32 funded by NOAA with $9.3 million in federal monies through NOAA Sea Grant’s 2017 national strategic investment in aquaculture.

These new efforts build on previous Sea Grant investments to support domestic aquaculture efforts. Between February 2016 and January 2017, Sea Grant reported $90 million in economic impacts, including support of 900 businesses and 1,800 jobs from aquaculture investment.

The Maine Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maine is a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Maine.

Source: University of Maine

Illustration Photo: Seaweed (Public Domain from Pixabay.com)

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