The calming powers of Maine smoked trout, kelp

With international crises dominating news headlines lately, perhaps we should revisit a recent international crisis that was smoothed over with some smoked trout from Maine.

We are speaking about the crisis of French President Francois Hollande’s visit to Washington last month. The question of great pith and moment then was whether Hollande would bring his long time domestic partner or his new, much younger mistress, who the media had just outed. He came single.

When he arrived for the state dinner, the White House offered President Hollande smoked trout from Ducktrap River of Belfast as an appetizer perhaps to soothe the taut nerves the diplomatic kerfuffle had created.

The Belfast smoked seafood producer began humbly enough in 1977 when a young Harvard graduate, Des Fitzgerald, came to midcoast Maine with the dream of raising trout. Fitzgerald found a suitable parcel of land on Kendall Book that emptied into the Ducktrap River, where he built pens for fingerling-sized trout he planned to fatten up and sell.

He soon discovered that among his many grateful customers were raccoons, skunks and otters that were dining on his profits. So he dug a hole in the bottom of a 4- by 4-foot hut near the brook, buried a wood stove in its dirt floor and began smoking the trout, which he then hawked to local customers. Ducktrap River is now a 120-person-plus company that is part of Norwegian-based Marine Harvest, the largest salmon and trout producer in the world.

The Ducktrap River story also recapitulates the history of the tribulations of finfish aquaculture in Maine, which began with efforts of entrepreneurs like Fitzgerald in various locations off the Maine coast. After many starts and stops, larger foreign-owned companies that had the capital to survive intense competition in the marketplace and occasional large losses to predators ultimately acquired all of the remaining entrants in the emerging industry.

By the late 1980s Maine’s aquaculture industry, headquartered in the protected bays off Eastport, was concentrating solely on raising Atlantic salmon. A decade later, salmon aquaculture had grown into a $100 million industry in Maine until a perfect storm of forces coalesced to decimate the industry.

Efforts to expand beyond Eastport and Washington County were stymied by the effective opposition of coastal landowners who did not want to see commercial operations interrupt their “wild” views of the open ocean. Lobstermen hated the idea that commercial businesses could “fence in” the ocean and keep them out. Environmentalists were worried about the buildup of food and fish waste under the salmon pens from intensive farming operations and pressed for new federal regulations.

And then some pen-raised salmon from non-native stocks escaped into the wild just as the federal government declared seven eastern Maine rivers as protected habitat for endangered populations of native Atlantic salmon. The resulting weight of federal regulations at a time of increased market competition from abroad drove many salmon farms out of business. Within a few years, salmon aquaculture in Maine had shrunk to a third of its former size.

And then a funny thing happened. The remaining salmon farms in Maine consolidated their ownership and became much more efficient producers. They became vertically integrated companies, producing their own young salmon from company hatcheries, with their own processing plants, producing their own value added products like salmon steaks and fillets. And although one hates to beggar one’s neighbors, Chilean salmon farms, which had pushed prices down to historic lows, suffered losses to virulent disease epidemics.

The aquaculture industry in Maine has also diversified. Shellfish, like oysters, clams and mussels, which strain food out of the water, require less up-front investment than fish farms and are subject to fewer environmental regulations. Oysters, although a distant second to salmon in the annual value of the harvest, have many successful local brands in the marketplace. Most of Maine’s largest oyster farms, which thrive in brackish water, are located in the Damariscotta River estuary, but oyster farms are also thriving in Bagaduce, Weskeag, Meduncook and New Meadows rivers, among other locations.

The newest entrant in Maine’s aquaculture scene is neither fish nor bivalve but a vegetable — more specifically a sea vegetable called kelp, which grows during the winter below the sea surface, which reduces the potential for conflict with both lobstermen who fish mostly during the summer and with boaters who cruise the surface waters. Maine’s first seaweed farm off Little Chebeague Island in Casco Bay produces pickled kelp, frozen kelp noodles and kelp slaw, which are now available at Whole Foods Market and other stores.

And, who knows, at the next state dinner, the vegan president of one of our international trading partners might be served a sushi with a side of kelp from Maine’s still pristine marine environment.

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Philip Conkling

About Philip Conkling

For the past 30 years, Philip Conkling served as the founding publisher and senior editor of Island Journal and The Working Waterfront at the Island Institute in Rockland.