Alternative Materials in Aquaculture

As young farmers of the sea, we are shocked by how much plastic it takes to rear our oysters and seaweed!

Degraded plastic fiber pollution from conventional aquaculture gear and customary materials contributes to the pollution of marine environments.  Plastics cause harm to marine organisms at multiple scales through habitat damage and decreased water quality. This may cause a deleterious effect where we are growing food! As our plastic ropes fray, their tiny shards of petri-chemicals and the pollutants bound to them become a part of the bodies of shellfish we grow. Buoys and other gear introduce yet more plastics into our ocean waters. How can we prevent this?

One of our key ongoing "action research" projects at Seaweed Commons is "Alternatives to Plastics in Aquaculture," a series of participatory experiments in non-plastic materials for aquaculture. As beginning and lifelong aquaculturists in love with the ocean and all the life they contain, we seek to maintain a high-quality cultivation environment. One major way to do this is reducing the use of plastics on and in the water. New aquaculture leases in Maine have more than quadrupled in the past 5 years, most of them at a small enough scale to consider using alternative gear (which will most likely be more costly) to the almost 100% plastic options that are currently mainstream.  It would be a huge step to create and establish workable alternatives for new or expanding farmers.

This project was first funded by NESARE in 2020 to support the partnership of Smithereen Farm and Long Cove Sea Farm in exploring, testing, examining and discerning how traditional (and non-traditional) marine materials, including hemp, cork, coir, cedar, pine tar, and mycelium, can be used in the construction of lines, floats, and oyster cages. 

Mycelium Buoys - Innoculating the Myco-lab

A cold call to mycologist Sue Van Hook resulted in a fantastic two part workshop this spring at Smithereen Farm where we grew mycelium in ground hemp into forms we custom made to be able to insert into the conventionally available Brooks Trap oyster ranches (made in Maine).

The vision is a biodegradable myco-buoy that you put into your cages in the spring, and take out when you sink your cages in the fall. This could be a micro-business for someone here at Smithereen Farm, or in association with the handful of oyster spat-growers in the state from whom the majority of oyster farms get their babies.

We also prototyped a Japanese style “ barrel buoy” intended as a marker/ rope float for kelp lines and for the corners of aqua-farms.  We welcome you to come and see what we have going on the water, and if you are a small grower yourself, to get in touch about other ideas.

Context: Aquaculture Growth 

We hope that in the near future that we could contribute as advocates, stakeholders, and co-designers of our evolving regulatory system— where the best practices we cherish in our sector are protected.  We want to participate in locally owned, conservation minded, suitably sited and, hopefully a truly 'sustainable aquaculture.’

It may be that we can create a set of standards or a label that would help small producers like ourselves compete in markets that already privilege large-scale operations.

See “ Aquaculture and the Plastic Problem" - Edible Magazine, and Mushroom Buoys - Bangor Daily News to learn more. If you want to join our research and collective self-educating, email [email protected] with questions, ideas, or to find ways to get involved!

In partnership with Long Cove Sea Farms.