Brunswick business sees future in land-farmed ocean fish

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BRUNSWICK — An Industrial Parkway aquaculture company believes consumers could soon be buying tasty, sustainable ocean fish – grown on Maine soil.

Acadia Harvest has received a $657,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for its efforts to raise fish in a “zero-waste” indoor system.

The funding is the second phase of a Small Business Innovation Research grant awarded to the business by the NSF, recognizing the company for its research and development efforts, and supporting it to launch on a commercial scale by 2017-2018.

Acadia Harvest was founded in 2011 by President Chris Heinig, CEO Edward Robinson, and scientist Taylor Pryor to “produce high-quality, sustainable marine seafood using leading-edge aquaculture technologies,” according to the company’s website.

The team started their project work at the University of Maine Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, and by 2013, their novel aquaculture system was recognized by the NSF with a grant of $180,000.

“Our system is called an integrated multi-trophic aquaculture system, or IMTA,” Heinig said in an interview Monday. In essence, Acadia has developed a system where different trophic levels – that is, separate links on the food chain – replenish each other, creating a continuously circulating ecosystem.

“The idea is to take the wastes of one trophic level and have it be the raw materials for the next,” Heinig said.

In a standard recirculating aquaculture facility, solid wastes from the fish tank are funnelled into a drum filter, which separates the solid matter and then pumps the clear water into a bio filter. The bio filter takes up the nitrogen from the water, and then sends the filtered water to be sterilized by ultraviolet light and then oxygenated, before it is pumped back into the fish tank.

Acadia’s approach is to utilize the waste within the system, Heinig said, and use the natural byproducts from the fish tank to cultivate additional marine species. It lowers operating costs and creates additional marketable products.

At Acadia’s test facility in Franklin, fish waste is not separated by a filter, but is instead consumed by sand worms. The water from the sand worms’ tank then gets pumped to a tank full of micro and macro algae that remove nutrients and oxygenate the water. In each step of the process the water gets cleaner, and Acadia cultivates more of the marine species they can sell at a profit.

The company has an option on a piece of property in Gouldsboro, to build its own commercial-scale production facility. Heinig said they hope to close on that deal by the end of the year, and prepare for a commercial launch between 2017 and 2018.

Heinig stressed that they could not have gotten the project off the ground without the UMaine center.

“It is in their charter to do research into marine (recirculating aquaculture systems), and be an incubator for business,” he said. “The facilities, structures, and permits are all there. It would be hard to (get started) without an institution like that.” 

Acadia is now testing their system with two fish species: California yellowtail and black sea bass. It’s possible diners may have even eaten some of Acadia’s yellowtail: they have distributed the fish to Harbor Fish Market in Portland and to local restaurants like Henry & Marty and Tao Yuan.

“Chefs like it because it’s a firm, white fish with a mild flavor, adaptable to a number of preparations,” Tony Barrett, Acadia’s director of sales and marketing, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

According to Barrett, test sales of the fish have gone well.

“The fish have a very compelling story,” he said. “They’re grown on-shore, indoors, without any antibiotics and without any hormones. … Chefs like (that).”

According to Acadia, ocean harvest of marine species like the California yellowtail and black sea bass has been flat or declining for 40 years. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits.

And yet, “as the world’s population continues to grow, there is increasing demand for high quality, safe seafood,” says Acadia. “(We seek) to leverage leading edge technology to help deliver fresh seafood from Maine to U.S. consumers.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Sidebar Elements

The Acadia Harvest team in Brunswick, from left: Taylor Pryor, chief scientist; Chris Heinig, president; director Des FitzGerald; Ed Robinson, chairman and CEO, and director John Pavan.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.