Rob Odlin of Running Tide
Rob Odlin of Running Tide Technologies with a line of skinny kelp grown in Casco Bay, where the company hopes to show aquafarming can be environmentally beneficial. (Courtesy Running Tide)
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An experimental aquaculture project off Portland’s East End could be Maine’s first example of new, environmentally beneficial implementations of the industry.

The project hopes to apply a green method for restorative improvement of water quality, rather than a commercial benefit. Results are expected to provide insight into how viable several farmed organisms may be at removing nitrogen from surrounding waters, and if successful, could be a benchmark for future work that could support Maine’s working waterfront and be applied to communities up and down the coast.

A partnership of Portland aquaculture startup Running Tide Technologies, the University of Southern Maine, and the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, the project received a $250,000 grant from Restore America’s Estuaries and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

DMR map
The square marked by arrows is the 3-acre offshore area designated for an experimental aquaculture project proposed by Running Tide Technologies. (Courtesy Maine Department of Marine Resources)

The lease application could take as long as six months to a year to be approved, but proponents say the knowledge gained from the experiment might be worth the wait.

Running Tide is a commercial aquaculture company that plans to farm kelp, clams, and oysters to determine how cost-effective this method is while monitoring the amount of nitrogen the organisms are able to absorb from nutrient-heavy waters near the city’s East End Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Although it’s a commercial company that already farms oysters, clams, and scallops in Harpswell, Running Tide also sees itself as “an ocean cleanup company,” specializing in finding natural pathways for resolving the ocean’s biggest environmental problems, including carbon and nitrogen pollution and general water quality. In its work, Running Tide uses proprietary equipment that is free of plastic.

Adam Baske of Running Tide said kelp and shellfish have the ability to improve the water quality of their surrounding environment as they’re grown.

Kelp absorbs nutrients from the water, including nitrogen, naturally as part of its metabolism. Shellfish, on the other hand, have a more indirect way of impacting water quality by regulating the amount of plankton in the environment. The plankton, similar to kelp, harvest nitrogen, and if unchecked, can result in harmful algal blooms; shellfish are able to regulate and reduce the likelihood of those blooms.

“Every coastal city in the world is probably looking for ways to eliminate or reduce excess nutrients,” Baske said, because an abundance of nitrogen, found in wastewater, for example, can degrade the ecosystem and negatively impact fisheries.

Juvenile oysters
Juvenile oysters grown at the Running Tide hatchery in Harpswell. (Courtesy Running Tide)

Although it’s likely this is the first use of these aquaculture methods in the Portland area, Baske said, this isn’t the first time it’s been done. The state of Maryland has a nutrient trading program that incentivizes removing harmful nutrients, like nitrogen, from Chesapeake Bay to continuously improve water quality.

If successful, the Portland project would demonstrate that this green infrastructure and natural filtering process is viable and could potentially be widely used to improve ecosystems, Baske said, making them safer and cleaner. Wastewater treatment plants, for example, may be interested in such methods as an economic alternative to purchasing heavy machinery to manage water quality.

According to USM’s Cutler Institute, recent changes at Portland’s wastewater treatment plant have been able to greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen discharged into Casco Bay. But fully removing the amount of nitrogen already present could cost as much as $40 million.

Bill Needelman, Portland’s waterfront coordinator, said projects like this that investigate new applications and create emerging industries are both exciting and necessary in supporting the working waterfront. Extending aquaculture into new realms such as wastewater treatment opens up more possibilities and opportunities for the waterfront, he said, which is growing increasingly important. 

“We don’t land the same number of fish in Portland harbor as we used to. It’s down dramatically,” Needelman said. “I don’t think we have a choice but to take every reasonable opportunity to expand options for seafood and other applications of aquaculture.”

Surf clams grown in Casco Bay
Surf clams grown in Casco Bay. (Courtesy Running Tide)

He said aquaculture is expected to play an important role in the future of Portland’s working waterfront, but there needs to be a balance between the industry’s growth and already established fisheries.

“There are plenty of examples where traditional fisheries and aquaculture can coexist,” Needelman said.

Coexistence, however, doesn’t always come without conflict. Among other things, critics say fish farms can transfer disease and parasites to wild fish, pollute water systems with excess nutrients and fecal matter, and threaten the livelihoods of traditional fishermen.

Running Tide’s Baske acknowledged there is opposition to aquaculture in Maine. He said his company tries to make its farm footprints smaller than typical operations to minimize those conflicts. 

Baske said there haven’t been any commercial fishing operations in the vicinity of the experiment in Running Tide’s scouting process, and even if there were, commercial fishermen would be free to use surrounding areas.

The project is expected to require approximately 3 acres, positioned between Mackworth Island and the Back Cove swing bridge. It is planned to be as unnoticeable as possible, Baske said, with at most a few buoys marking the project’s boundaries.

Aquaculture opposition has gained traction over the years, notably in Belfast, where a land-based salmon operation proposed by Nordic Aquafarms has faced pushback since 2018.

The Norwegian company is the target of four pending lawsuits, according to Andrew Stevenson, a representative of Friends of Harriet L. Hartley Conservation Area. The group, an opponent of the Nordic plan, argues this is primarily a question of land ownership, and whether Nordic’s plan infringes on neighboring property.

Whether it succeeds or not, Nordic Aquafarms is an example of aquaculture’s international scope as the fastest-growing source of food production in the world – and its potential in Maine, where according to a report by the University of Maine’s Aquaculture Research Institute, the economic value of the industry almost tripled between 2007 and 2016, from $50 million to $137 million.

New proposed aquaculture leases in the state peaked at more than 30 in 2019, and have remained up from pre-pandemic rates, according to data from the state Department of Marine Resources. 

DMR representative Jeff Nichols said he believes the vast majority of aquaculture leases are approved, but was unsure of the exact number. He said aquaculture is now widely recognized, especially for providing an opportunity to diversify the coastal economy. 

Running Tide’s Baske said it makes sense that aquaculture is booming in Maine, with the amount of coastline access the state has to offer. He added that for a long time the United States has been a huge importer of seafood, and should be producing more of its own.

But even with aquaculture’s continued growth, an ongoing challenge for the industry is the permitting process, which can be lengthy.

Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, said the lease application process is intentionally rigorous to ensure those who succeed have carefully considered their projects and are serious about being part of the industry.

Instead of making that part easier, he said the association successfully lobbied the state Legislature last year to secure more funds for DMR so it can hire additional staff and process lease applications more efficiently. Belle said DMR is expected to hire four more employees in the next year or so, and hopefully the time it takes to process lease applications will decline as a result.

Regarding the future of aquaculture in Maine, Belle shared his optimism following the recent World Aquaculture Society Forum – and after his surprise election as president of the National Aquaculture Society in the first week of March. 

“This is a meeting I’ve been going to for nearly 40 years now, and the thing that really struck me this year was the number of young people at the meeting,” he said.

Belle said the new participants are excited about the sector, whether it be the scientific or entrepreneurial side of aquaculture, and looking forward to contributing to its growth. 

In comparison to other countries in the industry, Belle said the U.S. has some catching up to do, but trying new things is a way to do it, whether via engineering, cultivating new species, or the impact of aquaculture on the environment – like Running Tide’s Portland project.

“It is an exciting time in the sector,” he said, “(and interest from young people) bodes well for the future.”