Can Japanese Tech Help Scallop Farming Hit It Big in Maine?

A unique sister-state relationship is bringing new ideas to Maine aquaculture.

Will scallop farming pay off for Maine’s working waterfront?
By Joel Crabtree
Illustration by Mike O’Leary

In 1889, the Cheseborough, a merchant ship out of Bath, had just set sail for New York from Japan when it was caught in a typhoon. The ship wrecked on shoals, spilling its cargo of sulfur into the sea near a village in Japan’s Aomori Prefecture. A group of villagers set out to attempt a rescue, and they managed to bring several of the crew safely to shore. The survivors remained in the village for days to recover and, once home in Bath, kept up correspondence with their rescuers. More than a century later, in 1994, the village (which has since incorporated into the city of Tsugaru) established a sister-city relationship with Bath, founding a student exchange program and subsequently inspiring a sister-state arrangement between Aomori and Maine. Now, for the past decade, Mainers who make a living on the water have been traveling to Aomori to study scallop farming.

Until recently, scallops were barely an afterthought in Maine shellfish aquaculture, overshadowed by the success of oysters and mussels. But, in theory, there’s money to be had in scallops — the wild scallop fishery is perennially lucrative even though it’s often curtailed by emergency closures to protect at-risk populations. “I think scallop farming has the potential to save the working waterfront,” says Alex de Koning, whose family started farming mussels in the Netherlands in the 1700s and who manages production at Hollander and de Koning Mussel Processors, in Trenton. With fishing of all varieties under constant and evolving threat from climate change and other stresses, he adds, Maine’s seafood economy will need more than just lobsters, oysters, and mussels to keep fishermen working in the future.

Maine already has a few dozen sites licensed for scallops but only a handful that are really trying to make a go of scallops, and those generally rely on a method of keeping their scallops in underwater nets, similar to how most commercial oysters are grown. In the close quarters of an enclosed net, scallops can’t thrive — they don’t grow as large or fetch as much value as their wild kin. Sometimes, small farms will make extra income by selling whole scallops, with the edible orange roe still attached to the more familiar muscle meat, but the roe can contain toxins that need to be tested for, increasing production costs. Either way, small-scale, net-based scallop farming is a difficult win.

In 2010 and 2016, Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises, Inc., an economic-development group, arranged trips to Aomori to learn about an alternative approach called ear hanging: A hole is drilled in one of a shell’s two flat corners, or “ears,” through which a line is threaded. Once the scallops are in the water, they can’t swim away, but they have enough room to grow. By hand, punching holes and stringing scallops is tedious work — two people can ear-hang only about 300 scallops per hour. Coastal Enterprises, though, has helped several Maine farmers test out a piece of machinery from Japan that automates the process, handling up to 2,000 scallops per hour. This spring, de Koning is using the new equipment for the first time, trying it out with a batch of 50,000 scallops.

Until farmers have had time to experiment with that technology, it’s uncertain whether ear hanging will prove lucrative in Maine waters. Atlantic scallops seem to grow more slowly, and farmers and researchers are still tinkering with the ideal line spacing and depths for the local environment. On the other hand, the market for farmed shellfish has only grown in recent years, and, presently, most scallops eaten in Maine are imported from Asia. If the gambit pays off, it won’t be the first time the people of Aomori have lent Mainers a hand.