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December 14, 2015

Scientists satisfy our taste for blue mussels and Arctic surfclams


Researchers focus on win-win for consumers and Maine coast--more jobs and shellfish diversity

These tiny creatures are Arctic surfclams. They're getting packed up for a trip to the shore. With some help, they're about to take up residence in an intertidal mudflat on the Maine coast, or 'Downeast' as they say around here, referring to ships sailing centuries ago from Boston east to Maine and downwind.

The area's rich maritime history is not lost on Brian Beal, a marine ecologist with the University of Maine at Machias who has lived here all of his life and grew up working on the water.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Beal and a team based at the university's Marine Science Field Station at the Downeast Institute are putting their aquaculture innovation skills to work. The team's goals are to diversify the U.S. market for shellfish and increase the number of jobs in that market. The researchers are focused on two types of shellfish with the potential to bring more jobs and dollars to the area: blue mussels and Arctic surfclams.

In the case of the latter, Arctic surfclams are not only a valuable species, but, Beal says, no one has ever tackled culturing them before. Arctic surfclams are a deepwater species that range from Rhode Island north to Newfoundland. Low densities have so far prevented the species from becoming a highly valued fishery in the U.S., but in Canada, there's a $50 million fishery off the southeast coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and off the Grand Banks, south of Newfoundland.

The other species, blue mussels, aren't new to Maine. They've been a part of the seafood industry here for years. Beal would like to expand the market for blue mussels by making cultivation more of a turnkey operation by providing mussel growers with a choice between collecting wild seed (that depends each year on the vagaries of nature) and a more consistent hatchery-reared seedling.

This is a Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity (PFI: BIC) project, which is focused on examining opportunities to create new marine aquaculture jobs in coastal Maine through shellfish research. The broader impacts of this research are related to increasing U.S. competitiveness in the seafood industry.

"This NSF PFI project embodies a quintessential combination of science, engineering, technology, education, outreach and the pursuit of innovation," says Sara Nerlove, program director for the PFI: BIC program. "And because Brian Beal was born and raised in the area, we have a special research situation, one in which he's been able to capitalize on his thorough knowledge of the people and the local economy."

Research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1317268, PFI: BIC, Shellfish Mariculture in Downeast Maine: Building Innovation Capacity to Diversify Economic Opportunities.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer


Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.