The seafood industry in Maine makes up a large source of state income. A study in 2018 conducted by Colby College and the Maine Lobster Dealers Association revealed that annually lobster fishing alone contributes around $1 billion to Maine’s economy. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing many businesses to temporarily halt operations, Maine’s seafood community has had to work to overcome the obstacles presented by the lockdown.
The Pandemic Pivot program is dedicated to sharing the experiences of Mainers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how they have overcome these situations. This week’s event was organized by Keri Kaczor and hosted by the Alliance for Maine’s Marine Economy on Oct. 20, and involved a discussion between Diane Tilton, the executive director of the Downeast Institute, and Boe Marsh, the owner and founder of Community Shellfish LLC. These leaders in Maine’s marine community provided insights into the workings of the Maine seafood industry and the potential future of the industry following COVID-19.
Tilton and Marsh shared background information on their individual organizations. The Downeast Institute (DEI) is a nonprofit marine research and education organization, dedicated to research in aquaculture development. Community Shellfish LLC is a diversified shellfish company which deals in the sales and distribution of seafood such as softshell clam, lobster, oyster and other varieties of shellfish. They also specialize in wholesale distribution in much of the Northeastern region of the United States.
Prior to the pandemic outbreak in March of 2020, Tilton expressed that the DEI was acting primarily as a hatchery facility, and was expanding research through various alliance investments including a visit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help look further into their research at the hatchery. With the COVID-19 pandemic halting travel into the state of Maine, the visit from NOAA was halted as well, and the DEI had to adapt to a new normal.
Tilton explained that the board of directors at DEI decided to look into for-profit research, which would involve the organization becoming more intentional with their commercialization of certain projects and developments. One such project involved growing oysters using lobster pounds which were available through their network of fisheries in the region, leading to a diversification in their production, and an eventual revenue stream from that diversification somewhere down the line.
Marsh expressed similar sentiments on the state of Community Shellfish LLC. As the waters along the coast of Maine had been warming, the organization had already begun to diversify their market as well. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing the organization to have to decommission most of its operations, Marsh had to find new ways of continuing to grow his enterprise.
Marsh said that they used the time of quarantine to “rebuild” in a sense. Many workers were re-deployed to work with company infrastructure and worked to innovate with an online resource for their company. One of the biggest outcomes of this pandemic was the ability of those in the marine industry to collaborate with one another to continue their work.
“Collaboration between like businesses is a big thing,” Marsh said, explaining the impact of the pandemic on Community Shellfish. The pandemic brought together many groups of growers, who began to share their supply chains and contribute to the overall success of the Maine seafood industry. The growers have even begun to expand beyond Maine, into regions as far as New York and Pennsylvania.
Tilton also stated that the DEI’s research is heavily reliant upon collaboration with various growers who are willing to branch out into a diversified seafood market. She expressed that they hope to create a sort of co-op model of research using a series of lobster pounds who may be interested in sharing in the potential success of that diversification into the growth of other shellfish.
Tilton remarked that they have at least 14 interested lobster pounds in the Downeast region looking to be involved in the study on shellfish growth. Tilton stated that the DEI will make the data collected through their collaboration available, and keep the pounds in the loop on research and future opportunities.
The future of the Maine seafood industry is ripe with potential despite the initial setback of the pandemic. One of the potential opportunities discussed during the Q & A was the expansion of the Maine seafood industry into regions outside New England. Marsh explained that through the traditional distribution of Maine seafood, much of the value added is transferred away from Maine. In trying to transfer products after the value added is taken from it, Maine retains that value. The seafood industry is making a transfer towards a statewide organization to benefit the Maine economy. Many small businesses have difficulty operating outside of the usual supply chain, and now have the opportunity to expand their operations to a larger scale through the collaborative efforts of companies like Community Shellfish and the research of the Downeast Institute.
The hardiness and resilience of the Maine seafood industry in the face of this pandemic has led to remarkable opportunities for researchers and businesses alike. Information collected and researched by the Downeast Institute will be published in the Journal of Aquaculture in the coming months.