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Shellfish to Save the World

Shellfish diets deliver healthy planets, communities and bodies: We can help this become a global reality.

Photo of Wyllys Terry
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Shellfish Solutions Inc.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Winchester, MA and Castine, ME

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Coastal Maine.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We all grew up in rural waterfront communities and have seen the challenges those communites have faced as wild fisheries have declined. Shellfish aquaculture is a bright light that should be encouraged. It is bringing jobs back to rural areas, cleaning the water, and providing a healthy protein. In the 1890s and estimated 30% of the protein for the working class of New York came from shellfish. Overfishing and pollution dropped the supply to almost zero by the 1910s. New seed sources, cleaner waters, better husbandry techniques, local leasing regulations and state support has seen the supply of shellfish increase dramatically in recent years. With optimization, better supply chains and connecting consumers with the local farmers we can see this grow even more dramatically. If we got back to 30% of the protein coming from shellfish, we would have a huge positive impact on our waterways, local rural communities and health.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The place I grew up is in rural Maine. In the forty years since I was a child there, all fisheries, except lobster have largely disappeared. Most of the paper mills have closed. The local towns no longer have travel agents, insurance agents, movie theaters and the like. The population has declined as most young people move away and Maine has become the oldest state in the country. However, in the last few years enterprising locals supported by universities have started oyster, scallop, mussel and seaweed farms. Early successes have led to other being interested. Last year Maine, permitted 198 new leases and you can find farmers on the Maine coast now putting their kids through college, buying houses and generally living the American dream. This is what we need to encourage.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The biggest worry is that demand will not keep up with supply. Prices will plummet and the small farms will get crushed. The math is pretty simple: At $3/oyster they are a special treat. At $1/oyster I can have them instead of wings. If they can get to ~$.50/oyster at the consumer table they can go back to being a stable of the American diet. Here is what is preventing that from happening: 1) Efficient growth: Oyster farmers typically loose 40% of their crop to mortality. The growth cycle varies from 10 months to 5 years (mostly dependent on water temperature) and 70% of a farm's cost is labor. Safety and compliance: 1) Shellfish have their own regulations that run to over 498 pages. Perhaps a 1/3rd of a farm's labor is spent on compliance issues. 2) People still get sick--and this has a huge impact on the demand. Supply Chain: The cold chain from farm to table can include many steps and is often inefficient. The farm gate price of an oyster in Maine is ~$.56/oyster at the restaurant 3 days later it is often over $1. Consumer education and demand: Consumers love learning about where their food comes from. Using a digital chain we can connect farmers with consumers.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

We can provide the management infrastructure using current phones, mobile printers and cloud storage to allow farms to: 1) Optimize their growth: Improved husbandry techniques will reduce mortality and labor costs. 2) Match demand with supply: allowing buyers to connect directly with farms. 3) Improve safety and compliance: by tracking oyster from farm to table--probably with remote temperature sensors and GPS monitors. 4) Connect end consumers with the farms

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

If we used 10% of our waterfront for efficient shellfish production, we could produce enough shellfish to make it a staple of the American diet and displace other proteins like beef and chicken that have a negative impact on our environment. Every million oysters removes ~500lbs of nitrogen from the water, delivers $500m in revenue to rural communities, and if it displaces chicken or beef in our diet it makes us healthier while reducing carbon emissions substantially. Coasts like Maine, Virginia, Maryland, Prince Edward Island and many others are perfect growing areas. This could be truly transformative.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Ted Cooney started MadHouse Oysters in Maryland knowing that consumers would love his oysters. He was right. In the 8 years since he started, he has shipped millions of oysters all over the country, hired numerous local waterman, and helped regrow an important industry on the Chesapeake. Ted’s success is part of a global trend. The number of oyster farms is growing rapidly and now numbers over 2,500 farms in North America. Maine approved 198 new leases in 2018. Maryland has been receiving between 80-100 lease application every year since they revamped their licensing in 2010. The latest estimate is the US industry generates over 16,000 direct and indirect jobs and an economic impact of over $2.2 billion dollars. Most of this development is in rural areas that have limited economic opportunities. This growth extends beyond North America to places like the Philippines, Latin America, Europe, Japan and China. A 2018 UN report concluded “[shellfish] production is increasing, but ... not enough to completely meet the world demand, leading to growing prices in all major markets.” Bottom line: shellfish farming (oysters, mussels, clams, scallops) can be a profitable business that delivers a healthy protein with no outside feed or fertilizer. An industry with a small carbon footprint that employs folks in waterfront communities that are facing declining wild fisheries. However, the story has gotten better. A lot of recent academic work has found oysters and mussels (the key species with the most science) remove nitrogen, phosphate and sediment from the water column. So why does this matter? Over the last 100 years, the green revolution has more than doubled the productivity of our farm lands by using more fertilizer--especially nitrogen and phosphate. An estimated 50% of fertilizer runs off into waterways. At the same time the industrial revolution has grown our cities and industries and produced even more nitrogen and phosphate. Excess nitrogen and phosphate leads to eutrophication--a dense growth of plant life that reduces in oxygen in the water. This causes hypoxia, fish kills, loss of habitats and potentially toxic algal blooms. According to the EPA and NOAA, an estimated 15,000 waterways in the US suffer from excess nutrients. Local and state governments are mandated to deploy Best Management Practices (BMPs) to solve waterway pollution issues. Most solutions to date have revolved around point source solutions--especially new and improved wastewater treatment plants that have had a significant positive impact. These solutions are reaching the limits of technical and financial feasibility. For example, New York and Connecticut have spent over $11.5 billion from 1995 to 2010 upgrading their treatment plants. As point sources solutions have improved, an increasing percentage of the current nutrient pollution in our waterways is from nonpoint sources— most notably runoff from fertilized fields, suburban lawns, and atmospheric deposits. At the same time, the number of wild shellfish has decreased substantially in almost all our waterways. So what does this have to do with shellfish? Scientists have documented three primary ways in which shellfish remove nitrogen and phosphate from the water. Shellfish sequester nitrogen and phosphate in their shells and tissue. This is a natural part of their life cycle, has no impact on the health or safety of a shellfish and is removed from the water at harvest. The algae on the surface of oyster shells turns nitrogen into nitrogen gas which is harmless and released into the atmosphere. Decaying matter beneath oyster farms sequesters nutrients in the anaerobic sediment on the bottom. The shell and tissue sequestration mechanism is the best studied and the easiest to quantify. Just using that measure, an average farm has the ability to remove several hundreds of pounds of nitrogen per acre--every year. A recent Canadian study found over 300,000kgs of nitrogen was being removed every year by shellfish farms in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. The average 3” triploid oyster in the Chesapeake removes .13 grams of nitrogen and .01 grams of phosphate. Although shellfish will not be the entire solution to the environmental challenges of our waterways, they have the potential to be a big part of the solution. Virginia and Maryland have recently passed Nutrient Credit Trading laws that will allow oyster farmers to sell credits on state exchanges. Although the details are still being worked out, the potential is that farmers could see a significant revenue increase from nutrient credits. Bottom Line: Ted’s Madhouse Oysters is a triple threat. A good business: A profitable growing business. Providing employment: He is employing folks with solid year-round jobs in an area with a structural employment problem. Saving the environment: The last million oysters he harvested sequestered ~200lbs of nitrogen and 11lbs of phosphorus from the water. Enough to make up from the impact of 200 average size lawns. That is a true triple bottom line impact that almost no other industry can touch.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Mark E Capron

Would you like to collaborate with the other ocean entries? The Ocean Food Systems and Total Ecosystem Aquaculture teams see the need for a network of ocean food systems groups.

Collaboration actions can be:
• Place a positive comment on the other ocean entries.
• Coordinate via email and/or voice to add other ocean entries in your answer to “If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide…”, add notice of collaborations in other entry text, fill gaps in each other’s entries.
• The OceanForesters invites any collaborating team to excerpt concepts, text, and pictures from its entry for use in their entry. The OceanForesters does not expect any collaborating team to share its winnings with OceanForesters.

Email markcapron at oceanforesters. com and jimstewart at oceanforesters. com for emailing documents or setting up Zoom or Skype calls.
(email addresses are altered in hope of avoiding robots)

We, the OceanForesters, have detected the following ocean food system entries (please invite other ocean seafood entries we might have missed):
• Ocean Gardens (Africa, Canary Islands)
• Ocean Nourishment (Africa, Senegal)
• Ocean Orchards (Asia, Malaysia)
• Ocean Food Systems (North America, Maine, USA)
• Shellfish to Save the World (North America, Maine, USA)
• Autonomous Aquaculture: … (North America, New Jersey, USA)
• Sustainable Manjua fishing… (North America, Guatemala)
• Marine Forestation of the Shallows … (no location)

Photo of Itika Gupta

Hi Wyllys Terry  Great to see you joining the Prize!
We noticed your submission is currently unpublished.
The Early Submission Deadline is almost there. Publish your Vision by 5:00pm EST on December 5, 2019 and have the opportunity to attend an invitation-only webinar with members of The Rockefeller Foundation’s Food team, the Sponsors of this Prize.
You can publish it by hitting the "Publish" button at the top of your facepost. You can also update your Vision at any time before 31 January 2020 by clicking on the "Edit Contribution" on top.
We're looking forward to seeing your submission in this Prize.