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"Stubborness" key to Downeast Institute's successful growth

Downeast on the coast of Maine there is a small outpost of energy, a place full of scientists, students and entrepreneurs. The Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education on Great Wass Island, formerly known as the Beals Island Regional Shellfish Hatchery, has blossomed in the past two decades into the nation’s eastern-most marine field station, offering research and education opportunities tied to its mission “o improve the quality of life for the people of downeast and coastal Maine through marine research, marine science education, and innovations in wild and cultured fisheries.”

The Institute’s growth came about from “being stubborn,” according to Dianne Tilton, executive director. “Twenty years ago we asked, ‘what do we want to do in the future? Do we want to remain a clam hatchery or do more?’” The answer was a resounding “more.”

The Beals Island Regional Shellfish Hatchery was the brainchild of Dr. Brian Beal of the University of Maine at Machias and six Washington County towns that were concerned about declining shellfish beds in the region. In 1987, the state’s first public shellfish hatchery opened in a tiny building on Perio Point in Jonesport. The hatchery’s work took off, supplying seed to towns throughout Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Students and researchers worked with Beal to develop techniques for growing, overwintering and seeding clam flats. After incorporating as a non-profit in 1996, the Regional Shellfish Hatchery changed its name and mission in 2000.

The Downeast Institute has grown its facilities dramatically in the last two decades. Photos courtesy of the Downeast Institute.

Changes came fast after that. “The space on Perio Point was too small. We needed to go somewhere else. So we purchased an old lobster place with 16 acres on Great Wass Island,” Tilton said. In 2003 the Institute moved to a 9,600-square-foot former lobster storage building on Black Duck Cove with more than 2,000 feet of deep-water frontage and two lobster pounds. At that time, the Institute became a Marine Science Field Station for the University of Maine at Machias. With federal and state support, the building was converted into a shellfish production and research hatchery with a flowing seawater laboratory.

Next came a marine education center. In 2010, with grants from the Maine Technology Institute’s Maine Technology Asset Fund and the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation program, a new 1,000-square-foot building was built. The center allowed the Institute to offer educational programming for students from grades K through 12, as well as their teachers.

“We just kept trying and trying to raise the funds for our expansion plan,” Tilton said. Additional grants from the Maine Technology Institute funded construction of a new 100-foot pier in 2012. Finally, the Institute was awarded more than $5 million from state and private foundations to build new marine laboratories, as well as a conference room, student housing, and service buildings. Construction was completed in 2018.

Tilton has been with the Institute for more than two decades, first as a board member for many years, now as the Institute’s first executive director. For her, the Institute’s growth is a dream come true. “We are able to do things now that we thought of and dreamt of doing,” she said. “We’re helping communities, we’re helping innovative entrepreneurs, we’re working with teachers.”

For example, the Institute has aided mussel aquaculturists in making their businesses more successful. “A mussel farmer approached us. Mussel farms use wild set for seed each year. He was concerned because if there is no natural set, he has no harvest the next year. So researchers came up with a method for pre-seeding rope in the hatchery. The farmer just puts the rope out at his site,” Tilton said. Purchasing the pre-seeded rope from the Institute is one way the organization funds itself. “We don’t want to exist just on federal grants,” Tilton laughed.

The Institute also conducts educational programs for Maine teachers. Its Coastal Education Academy helps teachers use scientific methods in their K-12 science curriculum. Teachers attend a four-day workshop at the Institute and participate in a school research project for the following school year. “The aim is to have the greatest impact on education as possible. So we teach the teachers how to do open-ended research. Rural teachers often don’t have a background in science so these programs give them more confidence,” Tilton said. “The kids love because there is no wrong answer!”

Tilton exudes a “can do” attitude when speaking about the Institute’s future. The Institute completed purchase in February of three nearby properties with six homes to be used as housing for interns, summer fellows, researchers and employees. A $2 million capital campaign will begin soon to cover the cost of the purchase and pay for building renovations.

“We are talking with the World Wildlife Fund now about a possible mussel hatchery. And we’re thinking about raising lobsters in an aquaculture setting,” Tilton said. “We’re also working with the Eastern Maine Skippers Program . They are going to try to grow Maine shrimp. We thought, ‘why not?’”


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