The Future of Farming

08-15-2020

Imagine a way of producing food that could help solve some of today’s biggest challenges. It would grow without the need for fertilizers or fresh water. It would create jobs and support small businesses, bolstering local economies and strengthening national ones.

Maine is at the leading edge of aquaculture, an industry growing with resourcefulness and ingenuity. Through diverse projects and partnerships, Bigelow Laboratory researchers are making discoveries that support Maine aquaculture — and inform ocean solutions that can be applied around the globe.

“By approaching aquaculture creatively, we can make a real difference to human and environmental health,” said Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas. “We need sustain¬able food for our growing population, and research can help aquaculture overcome obstacles to address that need.”

Lomas is working to make finfish feeds more nutri¬tious and sustainable by tapping into algae as a source of protein, fatty acids, and other naturally beneficial com¬pounds. He is developing a balanced mixture that can improve fish health and aquaculture operations in Maine and beyond.

Shellfish aquaculturists also must contend with envi¬ronmental factors. Maine’s coastal waters are becoming more acidic. Even slight increases in seawater acidity degrade shells and make the animals inside less healthy. This is a major threat — especially to larval and juvenile shellfish.

Senior Research Scientist Nichole Price is partnering with the Rockland-based Island Institute and aquaculturists around Maine to explore how growing kelp can help. Where it flourishes, kelp has an almost magical impact. In protected bays, it improves water quality by removing excess carbon and other nutrients — and it can generate new revenue streams for farmers.

“Kelp aquaculture has the potential to be a key part of fighting climate change on multiple fronts,” Price said. “Not only can it help offset Maine's carbon emissions, it can actually improve our coastal waters and develop local jobs.”

Kelp soaks up carbon like a sponge, pumping oxygen into the surrounding water while also making it less acidic. Through experiments with Bangs Island Mussels and Atlantic Sea Farms, Price measured a circle of remediated water radiating out from farmed seaweed and its positive impact on mussels cultivated in the area.

Now, Bangs Island Mussels is among the first to capitalize on this “halo effect” to proactively improve water quality on their farm. During the fall of 2019, they surrounded some mussel rafts with kelp lines, and they are studying the effect.

“All farmers are scientists, constantly observing and developing hypotheses about what they see,” Price said. “Partnering with aquaculture entrepreneurs has really expanded my understanding of the immediate challenges to sea-farming, and these collaborations are delivering valuable assistance to this promising industry.”

DISCOVERIES FROM MAINE ECOSYSTEMS

The Gulf of Maine is expansive and dynamic, fed by watersheds that flow seaward from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, and by deep ocean currents from both the north and south. Several Bigelow Laboratory researchers study the physical processes and biological relationships that shape this region, making discoveries that can inform and support Maine aquaculture.

Senior Research Scientist José Antonio Fernández Robledo turns to the Gulf of Maine for his research on marine shellfish and their microscopic parasites. He mines and engineers the genetic code of pathogens for insights into new medicines, biotechnology, and human health — simultaneously uncovering important discoveries for the region’s industries and economy.

Oyster aquaculture has been growing steadily in Maine for the last 40 years and rapidly for the last 20, but pathogens always loom as a potentially ruinous threat to any farm on land or sea. Maine farmers saw devastating oyster die-offs in the 1990s, and again in 2010. These events were blamed on the parasite Haplosporidium nelsoni, commonly known as MSX.

“Maine’s clean, cold waters create excellent conditions for farming, but nowhere is immune to disease,” Fernández Robledo said. “In order to be best equipped to grow shellfish, it’s important that farmers and managers have early warning about the parasites that could infect them.”

Fernández Robledo and several colleagues recently conducted the largest oyster pathogen survey ever undertaken in Maine. They collected oysters from partnering farms along Maine’s coast and used genetic techniques to look for any evidence of infection by parasites. Led by Senior Research Scientist Pete Countway, the team also used DNA collected from the environment — called eDNA — to take stock of microscopic organisms in the water near the farms.

Countway specializes in using eDNA to learn about the microbes and algae that thrive in the ocean — including harmful species. He is one of the leaders of a Maine-wide project that is developing eDNA as a revolutionary tool for ocean monitoring. Countway’s work with these emerging techniques could fuel early warning systems that would improve managers’ and farmers’ ability to manage threats.

“Understanding the diversity of microbes in the water could inform us about the sources and timing of shellfish infections, and help us understand this dynamic ecosystem in a new way,” Countway said. “Our growing understanding of microbial diversity in the Gulf of Maine has the potential to provide entrepreneurs and resource managers with critical information they can use to enhance the marine economy and ensure the safety of marine resources.”

SCIENCE-FUELED SOLUTIONS

A cycle of growth takes place in the Gulf of Maine every year. Each summer, microscopic algae in the upper ocean feed on the newly-available nutrients and sunlight. These phytoplankton grow like plants in a garden, feeding hungry young animals. By fall, the flourishing phytoplankton have consumed all the nutrients, and the sun's rays are waning. As their populations decline, some algae produce dormant kernels called cysts, which fall to the seafloor to await the next spring.

These algae are the foundation of the vibrant Gulf of Maine ecosystem, but a few species are also toxic to animals and people. Farmed shellfish, like those in the wild, eat by filtering seawater — a process that can accumulate toxins if harmful algae are present.

“As scientists work to understand this complex ecosystem, there remains a disconnect in directly relating what is happening with phytoplankton to shellfish toxicity,” said Senior Research Scientist Steve Archer. “The Gulf of Maine has such an intricate coastline that we need to know what's happening in all the little bays along the coast where shellfish are grown and harvested.”

Understanding the linkage between toxic algae and shellfish would be a real boon to farmers, resource managers, and scientists alike. Eating shellfish tainted by algal toxins can sicken and even kill. Human impacts in Maine are rare, thanks to a thorough harmful algal bloom monitoring program and robust shellfish testing during harvest seasons.

Archer’s team conducts regular tests of shellfish samples for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, which evaluates the results and makes decisions on fishery closures. Over time, this work has also spawned a new effort — to predict high levels of toxins before they occur.

“After several seasons of testing, we noticed that certain toxicity patterns arise year after year,” Archer said. “We realized our measurements contain hidden information that might be built into the prediction tool that managers and farmers have long desired.”

Mandates to stop harvesting shellfish can be costly for farmers and harmful to Maine’s economy. Armed with a forecast showing high toxicity on the horizon, a shellfish grower could harvest a week early, and a shellfish wholesaler could better plan their staffing needs.

Led by Senior Research Scientist Nick Record, the researchers have developed a toxicity forecast based on the same technology that powers facial recognition and self-driving cars. Their model utilizes neural networks, a sophisticated machine learning approach that can process huge volumes of data to recognize complex patterns.

As their algorithm churned through more and more toxin data, it became increasingly accurate at predicting toxicity levels two weeks in advance. With funding from NOAA, the team is now testing their model with a pilot group of shellfish growers. The aquaculturists’ feedback will help the researchers improve the forecast and optimize its usefulness. In a few years, the team hopes that real-time forecasts will be in place to aid monitoring and shellfish harvests along the Maine coast.

“Our research becomes all the more powerful when we use what we learn to solve problems and drive solutions forward,” Archer said. “Collaborating with people on the frontlines of the aquaculture industry expedites their access to new tools and provides us with invaluable insights.”

INSPIRING ACTION

Though these discoveries and solutions center on Maine aquaculture, their impact does not stop at the state’s borders. Bigelow Laboratory researchers are teaming up with regulators, students, and the public to expand the benefits of their science.

Archer and Record are working with resource managers to test how their forecasting model could help in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and they are collaborating with Canadian colleagues to potentially expand the approach internationally. Fernández Robledo and Countway are helping develop fast and affordable tests that could let aquaculturists around the world detect pathogens on oyster farms.

“It’s really our partnerships and deep collaborations that makes this research successful,” Archer said. “Working with the aquaculture industry, shellfish wholesalers, and managers is essential to creating useful tools and solutions, and we couldn’t do our research without them.”

In addition to their work in the lab and field, the researchers constantly strive to put their science into action and support Maine’s growth. No one does so more than Senior Research Scientist Nichole Price.

Price has discussed aquaculture with members of Congress and presented to the National Organic Standards Board about harvested seaweed. She has connected with individual members of the public and students. She has even broken bread with guests on Maine Food for Thought tours and hosted events catered by Ocean’s Balance, a Maine seaweed product company — all in her quest to spread the gospel of kelp and shellfish aquaculture.

“There is no more powerful way to communicate the power of this work than disseminating results right at the dinner table, eating fruits of the sea,” Price said. “The more that people taste the incredible potential of this industry, the more we can work together to capitalize on its environmental and economic opportunities.”

Price engages people in the scientific process as well. During a pilot project funded by the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and the EPA, she collaborated with Mook Sea Farm to assess the impact of applying finely ground oyster shells to improve seawater acidity for juvenile oysters — effectively using this “shell hash” as an antacid. Her team shared this work during Shell Hash Day, a citizen science event measuring seawater chemistry along the Maine coast.

Price also advises several groups at the state level. As a member of the Maine Climate Council, she develops strategies to meet the state’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. Price sits on the Council’s Science and Technology Subcommittee and participates in the Coastal and Marine Working Group, assessing the potential for carbon capture by seaweeds. This approach could generate revenue for seaweed farmers, who could sell carbon and nitrogen credits in voluntary markets. Price and collaborators recently received funding from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program to define the most cost-effective verification protocols for this work.

Bigelow Laboratory research is also a training ground for the next generation of scientists. Several students contributed to these projects through Research Experience for Undergraduates internships, and some have already gone on to professional careers in aquaculture and ocean science.

Now, this work is reaching high school students too. In 2019, Price worked with Research Scientist Nicole Poulton to add a seaweed husbandry component to Bigelow Laboratory’s annual Keller BLOOM program.

“There is a lot of momentum behind the aquaculture industry and the research that informs it, and I want to show students an exciting career path that can allow them to stay in Maine,” Price said. “There is room for a sustainable, profitable industry here, and Maine can spread the word that aquaculture can be part of the solution for this country and beyond.”

The first photo in this story is courtesy of Brittney Honisch, and the second is courtesy of Mook Sea Farms.