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As Maine's climate continues to change, so does its growing scallop farming industry

Scallops can clean seawater around them. But combatting effects from climate change like storm surge and warming waters pose a potential threat.

BELFAST, Maine — When you work on the water in Maine, the cold months make for hit-or-miss days.

For Andrew Peters and his three-person crew, undocking from Buck's Harbor Marina in Brooksville to tend to their scallops is a year-round venture. 

It takes about 45 minutes by boat to get to the scallop farm. Along the way, Peters' crew counts and cleans small scallops. The ones he was monitoring in in December were about an inch or so and needed another two years to grow to market size.

"All my life I wanted to work on the water and make a living working on the water, and when I was younger, I wanted to be a lobsterman," Peters said while steering the boat through islets on Penobscot Bay.

Peters, who grew up in New York, said he lived near Portland and worked as a sternman on a lobster boat. He wanted to be a captain himself. 

"I've been on a waitlist for eight years, and within the last 10 years I've realized there are other ways to make a living on the water and one day is to scallop farm," Peters said.

But when you eat a scallop from Maine, chances are you are eating a wild caught scallop. The harvest of wild scallops happens normally in winter. Scallops also take a long time to grow, sometimes two to three years to reach a marketable size.

Meaning, if you want to start a farm, it takes a big investment.

"Getting product to the market has only been in the last few years. It's been a long effort, and the industry just seems to be taking off now," Peters said.

Peters said the first two years of his business was just growing scallops.

But if it's this much effort to have a scallop farm, why not join the hundreds of people who harvest wild scallops?

"It's nearly impossible to get into wild fisheries in Maine," Peters said. "Wild scallops have a lottery system, and it's also a limited-entry system. As a young person, it's one of the only ways into entering making a living on the water."

Once the crew makes it to the farm, they get to work. Small scallops are put into nets to swim freely around as they grow. Larger scallops are drilled onto long ropes, suspended in the water. This gives them a large range to grow and move around.

Peters' farm is called Vertical Bay, and the structure he uses for growing scallops suits the name.

"Everyone likes scallops, just no one knows how to grow them," Peters said. "There has been a concerted effort for a number of years to try and bring the knowledge of how to farm scallops from Japan."

Peters said he and a group of farms were planning a trip to Japan to learn more trade knowledge.

On board Peters' boat, there was another crew member who is also a researcher at University of Maine.

Christopher Noren sifted through the young scallops and counts them into their pens. But he is also studying the best ways scallops can grow for his research. He said growing scallops requires buy in, but they don't need food or other supplements.

"Scallops, mussels, oysters -- they require almost no nutrient input. ... They are actually better in some ways because they take in water, filter out nutrients, and shoot out cleaner water than before," Noren said.

Noren also said the buy-in to grow more scallop farms is important, as far more of Maine's coastline and offshore areas could be home to scallop farms than other shellfish.

"It can be massive, because scallops tend to grow further offshore. Almost every area of offshore there could potentially grow scallops, whereas oysters, we are at the northern temperature range," Noren said. "Scallops are the ideal, but we are at the southern range."

Noren said this can pose a potential risk to the scallop industry, both wild and farmed, as waters in Maine continue to warm.

"Scallops prefer about 10 to 15 degrees Celsius for growth, but if you get around 22 degrees Celsius, that's when they start to die. ... That could be a danger to wild and aquaculture scallops," Noren said.

He added that southern Maine reaches those high temps during peak summer.

But, Noren said, while the future of the industry could be threatened by climate change, as will the lobster industry, there should be no deterrence for fishermen to expand into aquaculture farming, like Peters did.

"They are a positive enterprise overall," Noren said. "It really presents a lot of cool opportunities for new entrants into the field as well."

As the crew on Vertical Bay cleans up and starts their nearly hourlong boat ride back, Peters said he welcomes more people farming scallops in the future.

"I think growing the number of scallop farms is an incredibly positive thing. You are increasing the viability of a coastal economy, you are providing more jobs in the sense that I got two paid employees on the boat right now and if I wasn't doing this we'd all be doing some else, I don't really know," Peters said.

Peters said his is one of the largest scallop farms in the state, and he said he hoped it's a legacy that can continue.

"We are trying to develop an industry that will help Maine's economy, to be resilient and move on," Peters said. "I have a 1-year-old son, and I want him to have something to do when he's my age, something positive for the community and positive for the environment."

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