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Updated: October 27, 2020

How aquaculture’s pivot to direct distribution could go beyond pandemic

Courtesy / Maine Aquaculture Association The pandemic’s initial impact to the aquaculture industry was enormous, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. But the industry has found new distribution channels. Seen here is Marshall Cove Mussel Farm in Islesboro.

Like wild fisheries, Maine’s aquaculture industry felt an enormous impact early in the pandemic with the shutdown of restaurants, the industry’s largest market and the setting where most seafood, wild and farmed, is consumed.

Mainebiz asked Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association in Hallowell, how the industry is faring now and what the outlook is going forward.

Here’s an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: How has the pandemic impacted the aquaculture industry?

Sebastian Belle: The impact was enormous, particularly when the restaurant sector shut down. It was a big shock to everybody, how quickly that impacted sales. 

MB: What have seafood farmers done since then?

SB: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand we have to figure out a way to get seafood to consumers. The pandemic has forced an evolution of some of the industry’s distribution channels at an accelerated rate. Those changes were happening anyway, but the pandemic sped it up. Historically, the farmer sells to a local wholesaler, which then ships to a regional wholesaler, then to wholesaler in another region, then to a retail outlet. We saw individual farmers being very innovative in terms of figuring out other ways to sell their product. In particular, I’m thinking about direct distribution to consumers and retail. 

That innovation is continuing and, if anything, accelerating at this stage. It’s a fascinating case study, from an economic point of view, of how it will be play out in terms of distributional efficiencies and in terms of consumers establishing direct links with farmers and beginning to understand what we actually do.

Courtesy / Maine Aquaculture Association
Sebastian Belle

MB: How have those direct links between farmers and consumers been implemented?

SB: Many farmers own the product further up the value chain than traditional fishermen do. They don’t bring something to a dock and then hand it off to someone else. Many farmers have direct relationships [with buyers], particularly with the restaurant sector and also with the food service sector. We have more control than traditional fishermen do over when we harvest and at what price we harvest. The pandemic has brought out that strength and allowed farmers to be innovative and aggressive about direct distribution. 

Nowhere has that been more true than in the oyster sector. The oyster guys have gone for it. We’re seeing groups of farmers getting together and distributing direct to restaurants via national e-channels. We’re seeing initiatives like Pemaquid Oyster Co. [in Damariscotta], which created The Hub, where they’re selling their oysters at a retail outlet and also aggregating and selling other products. The same with Glidden Point Oyster. Mere Point Oyster quickly turned and began to do direct home delivery of oysters and other seafood products 

It’s early days to know what is going to be successful and what isn’t. I’m sure there will be some train crashes along the way. Direct-to-consumer gets complicated, expensive and time-consuming. But I do think the pandemic has accelerated the evolution of the distribution channels. 

MB: How are retail sales doing?

SB: We’ve seen an uptick in retail sales. The barrier to retail sales has always been consumer uncertainty about how to cook seafood. When the pandemic first started to happen, [Maine Aquaculture Association Outreach and Development Specialist] Afton Hupper began to make and post video recipes on social media. The uptake on that was insane. It became obvious to us that people are thirsty for knowledge about how to prepare seafood. That’s tremendously helpful to the sector. My guess is it will actually, in the medium- to long-term, drive an increase in seafood consumption at the national level because people will become more comfortable preparing seafood at home as opposed to having a restaurant prepare it.

MB: Any data on production and revenue so far this year?

SB: It’s too early to say. The question is, will we play catch-up? Fish, oysters, seaweed – those are in the water and growing, so I don’t expect production numbers to go down. What will happen with revenues remains to be seen. We’re going into one our peak market season with the holidays, so we’ll have to wait through the season to figure out impacts. 

MB: I understand there’s a project to buy surplus oysters to stock restoration sites, thus getting some cash to the industry. (See sidebar.)

SB: The idea is that, if growers have product grown past the size where they can sell them, they can be used to restore wild oyster reefs. Growers will be offered a price for their product. It would not necessarily be the price they’d get in the marketplace, but it would help them recoup their costs. And then those animals would be used for a good ecological purpose. 

MB: What happens with other farmed products if they grow past market size?

SB: There’s some risk for finfish. When you end up with a lot of really big fish, that’s impacted by world markets. Right now it looks like we’re okay. The mussel folks have a lesser challenge because the market for mussels is huge and production in Maine is relatively small, so even in a contracted market we can supply a lot of mussels into that market. 

MB: Where are your primary markets?

SB: Our primary market is North America, and mostly the U.S. We can get any product we harvest to Chicago and Atlanta within a 24-hour period, which gives us a huge competitive advantage from the shelf life and freshness point of view. That’s typically recognized in prices. Maine oyster, mussel and salmon all get a price premium in the marketplace because of their high quality and longer shelf life.

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