UMaine $20 million NSF grant to research aquaculture

ORONO, Maine — A $20 million research grant from the National Science Foundation will fund the development of a multi-institutional research network focused around the social, economic and ecological factors influencing aquaculture in the state of Maine.

“The overall mission is to establish a research and education network that will enhance the value of ocean foods in this bioregion, so that ultimately we will become a global center for recruiting the best and brightest students and faculty,” said Barry Costa-Pierce, director of Marine Sciences at the University of New England.

The Sustainable Ecological Aquaculture Network (SEANET) created and funded by the grant will be headed by the University of Maine but rely heavily on partnerships between public and private academic institutions around the state. The grant, which was awarded to Maine’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) started on Aug. 1 and will run a five-year tenure.

SEANET will use Maine’s position as a global leader in aquaculture to explore how this process of farming in water can solve statewide and national questions regarding the current state and future of coastal communities that have for centuries relied on the ocean for their livelihoods.

“Because we have an established industry, a working waterfront and other interests along our coast, we have a fascinating opportunity to discover how aquaculture can work into our waterfront,” said Paul Anderson, director of SEANET at the University of Maine.

The availability of oceanic resources is a globally paramount issue: 90 percent of seafood in the U.S. is imported from other countries, and 80 percent of ornamental fish sold are being harvested off of coral reefs.

Particularly in Maine, the availability of lobster licenses is becoming harder to sustain every year while the local fishing industry is not as strong as it once was, and “that really threatens the cultural and economic integrity of many vulnerable communities around the state,” said Anne Langston, assistant director of the Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI) at UMaine.

While SEANET is not looking to replace Maine’s fisheries with aquaculture, it is seeking to develop a comprehensive approach to the sustainability of these fisheries through aquaculture practices and secure their future along Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline.

“You’ve got communities that have this connection to the sea, and they are at a point in time where they don’t know how those connections to the sea can be maintained,” Langston said.

To further explore the possible opportunities that will come from aquaculture development, SEANET is seeking input from over 20 academic disciplines across the network including the biological and social sciences, oceanographers and marine scientists, economists, risk communicators, as well as engineers.

“Research networks, in my experience, have been a fantastic way of coordinating groups that don’t necessarily interact with each other on an everyday basis,” Langston said. “You wouldn’t normally get oceanographers interacting with risk communicating researchers. They don’t naturally interact.”

By connecting this variety of specialists, SEANET is creating an aquaculture “resource hub” that will give the institutions involved access to faculty and research they would not be able to attain on their own.

“Developing those partnerships and the direct day-to-day access to the ecosystems is the primary role,” Costa-Pierce said.

The University of Maine’s ARI currently only has three faculty members and a half dozen students. SEANET has engaged “about 70 faculty members across the state, and so now we’re getting people who are in any number of different research disciplines that are now focusing on aquaculture,” Langston said.

Through the 100 undergraduate internships and 20 graduate assistantships funded by the grant, Maine’s students will have the opportunity to gain valuable skills and experience that will familiarize them with the aquaculture industry across the state.

“I would like to see the next generation of coastal leaders to come from the state of Maine,” Costa-Pierce said.

A key hold back for the advancement of the aquaculture industry in Maine is due to a lack of an adequately trained workforce.

“In order to boost the industry to the next level having this kind of input into training young minds and scientists that’s the only way you can grow an industry,” Langston said.

After the research is compiled, SEANET is hopeful that it will have created an aquaculture toolbox for community organizers and stakeholders to use and apply in their coastal communities.

The last EPSCoR grant the University of Maine received funded the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI), which has reached the end of its five-year lifespan. The SSI and SEANET are composed of different initiatives, but SEANET will benefit from the sustainability research conducted by the SSI.

The SEANET network will include UMaine, UNE, Maine Maritime Academy, University of Southern Maine, University of Maine at Machias, Bowdoin College, Southern Maine Community College, St. Joseph’s College, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and the Cobscook Community Learning Center.

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