A company known for bringing innovation to Maine’s aquaculture scene plans to more than double production and expand its workforce after buying nearby shellfish and kelp farms in Casco Bay.
Bangs Island Mussels, a Portland aquaculture company, says it needs to scale up its business to meet demand for its rope-grown mussels. The sale comes as Maine-farmed mussels hit a 10-year high for value and production, prompting talk of Maine-grown mussels taking market share from Canada.
“We have been a very small company for a long time. It is hard to operate as a small company when you have so many expenses,” owner Matt Moretti said in an interview.
“Particularly in aquaculture, it is not the easiest industry to operate,” Moretti added. “By growing to an appropriate scale, it just makes everything better.”
It was founded 20 years ago, and since then has continued to innovate, most recently striking up a partnership with the University of New England to research the diet and stresses on mussels to better understand their growth rates and tissue quality.
Since incorporation, Bangs Island has worked the same handful of acres near Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. The company grows mussels and kelp from ropes suspended beneath rafts. The efficient system grows tens of thousands of pounds of mussels in a small space. Bangs Island produced about 266,000 pounds last year, Moretti said.
But beginning this year, Bangs Island expanded its leased space from 8 acres to about 23 acres in waters around Falmouth and Chebeague Island. It now farms an area roughly the size of 30 football fields.
Last winter, the company bought about 4 acres of kelp farms from Ocean Approved and received state approval for an 11-acre lease in March. It bought another 5.75 acres of rope-grown mussel farms this fall from Calendar Island Mussels.
Bangs Island plans to add seven rafts to a maximum build-out of 28 by early next year and bring full production to at least 750,000 pounds a year by 2021. Moretti hopes to grow his full-time workforce from four employees to at least 15. Moretti and his father bought the company from its founder in 2010.
“We are trying to achieve a much more efficient scale,” he said. “Do what we have been doing for the last nine years, but bigger and better.”
DIVERSE BUSINESSES, SPECIES
Blue mussels account for a sliver of the state’s $71.7 million aquaculture harvest, but landings and value have grown dramatically in the last decade.
In 2018, Maine blue mussel farms landed 2.1 million pounds worth $3.2 million, according to the Department of Marine Resources, more than twice the value a decade ago.
The dock value may not represent the value of mussels after they are cleaned, processed and packaged. Rope-grown mussels fetch a higher market price, about $2, than those farmed on the bottom, about $1.50, or wild-harvested, 90 cents.
Some consolidation in Maine’s growing aquaculture industry is expected, but Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, doesn’t think the Bangs Island deal indicates a trend of big companies dominating the industry. Despite its expansion, Bangs Island is still a small concern compared to big producers in Canada and elsewhere.
“I think the more important trend, frankly, is the entrance of new producers into the sector,” Belle said.
In the last decade, the state approved 79 new commercial aquaculture leases and 764 limited-purpose leases, almost seven times the limited-purpose leases given out between 2002 and 2010, according to figures provided by the marine resources department.
Limited-purpose leases are yearlong, 400-square-foot areas for people starting out in the industry. Most of the leases are for shellfish and seaweed.
“The strength of the Maine aquaculture sector is the diversity in species and company sizes,” Belle said.
“Instead of being a monolithic sector, we have a diverse one that will allow us to grow and adapt to changing circumstances in the market and in regards to climate change.”
TAKING MARKET SHARE FROM CANADA
A 2016 report from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute projected Maine could become an important player in U.S. mussel cultivation.
North American demand for farmed mussels has grown in recent decades but is mainly filled by imported shellfish from Prince Edward Island in Canada. The island’s industry produces 40 million pounds of mussels a year and employs 1,500 people, according to the provincial government.
But discerning chefs and consumers prize Maine mussels because they are bigger, meatier and benefit from the state’s reputation for quality seafood, said Jonathan Labaree, chief community officer at Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
“More people are eating mussels, and there is good opportunity to Maine to take some market share away from Canada,” Labaree said.
The report projects the value of Maine’s rope-harvested mussel harvest could be $15 million a year by 2030. Despite the promise of the industry, only a handful of small companies farm mussels.
Starting a rope-farmed mussel business is expensive and involves off-shore equipment and infrastructure, Labaree said. Startup farms have had a hard time getting financing from banks and other conventional lenders unfamiliar with the business and concerned with risk.
Oyster farming is comparatively easier and cheaper to get into, Labaree said, as evidenced by the many oyster companies that have sprung up in the last five years.
“Mussels are just a harder business to get into,” Labaree said. “I suspect we’ll see more as time goes on.”
Peter Stocks, the former owner of Calendar Island Mussels, said selling to Bangs Island was the right move for both companies.
Stocks began growing mussels around the same time Moretti bought his company and has since branched out to farming scallops. He felt it was time to focus on a single product and also for one of the companies to expand rapidly, Stocks said.
With a current two-year waiting time for state lease approval, the fastest way to scale aquaculture is to buy out existing leases, along with equipment and customers, Stocks added.
“The economics of it are such that the faster you can add on volume to your production, the sooner your costs drop and profits go up,” he said.