The collaborative effort that grew to become the Downeast Institute began in 1987 on the clam flats of six Washington County communities. Clammers and town officials, concerned about declines in soft-shell clam harvests, teamed up with Dr. Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine in Machias. They created the Beals Island Regional Shellfish Hatchery (BIRSH) – a facility where wild clams were spawned, clam larvae and juveniles were reared on diets of cultured algae, and seed clams were produced for planting on the depleted municipal flats.
BIRSH opened the doors to its 1,600 sq. ft. facility on a wharf overlooking Moosabec Reach in May 1987. It was Maine’s first public shellfish hatchery.
Over the next 16 years, the former clam shucking shed produced hundreds of millions of seed clams for more than 40 Maine coastal towns and a few communities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Shellfish production efforts and the accompanying applied research were conducted under Dr. Beal’s direction by a mix of UMM students and staff paid with public and private grants. BIRSH developed techniques for growing, overwintering, and seeding clam flats, passing along those technologies to municipal shellfish committees, clammers, and the scientific community through published articles in a number of research journals.
In 1996, BIRSH organized as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. Its Board of Directors includes residents of Maine’s coastal communities and fishermen as well as specialists in marine resources, education and business. In 2000, the Board changed its name from BIRSH to the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research and Education (DEI) to more accurately reflect its mission.
Since then, DEI has experienced three distinct phases of growth:
Phase I: Acquiring a facility on Great Wass Island and transforming it into to a shellfish hatchery (2003-2006)
During the summer of 2003, DEI moved from its home at Perio Point on Beals Island to Black Duck Cove on nearby Great Wass Island with the goal of renovating a 9,600 sq. ft. lobster storage building into a shellfish production facility. The site includes more than 2,000 feet of deep water frontage and two lobster pounds.
In 2003, the Downeast Institute formally agreed to serve as the Marine Science Field Station for the University of Maine at Machias. Through this arrangement DEI provides opportunities for undergraduate research, and our facility is used by educators and researchers from that campus. In addition, the DEI Board of Directors envisioned using its new home to create a world-class marine research laboratory and education center in this remote region of eastern Maine.
Above: The lobster holding facility and original wharf that was to become DEI’s new home on Black Duck Cove on Great Wass Island in Beals in June 2003.
In March of 2006, with help from the Trust for Public Land and the support of Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as the Maine Technology Institute, DEI used federal and state grant funds to purchase the eight and a half acres and associated buildings at its Black Duck Cove campus.
DEI fulfilled its plan to convert the property’s former lobster tank building into a shellfish production and research hatchery, and a running seawater laboratory.
Phase II: Building a Marine Education Center and Replacing the Pier (2010-2012)
DEI took the first step toward becoming a full-service marine research laboratory and education center in 2010. With grants from the Maine Technology Institute‘s Maine Technology Asset Fund (MTAF) and the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for Innovation program, a marine education center, one part of a comprehensive expansion plan, was constructed at DEI. This 1,000 sq. ft., 30 seat classroom is equipped for live and remote teaching, laboratory research projects, and other project-based learning with running seawater, AV and lab equipment, and floor drainage.
The Education Center, along with our rocky shore and working shellfish hatchery, has enabled DEI to provide ongoing programming, such as Marine Science Days, to thousands of K-12 grade students, college students, educators, and learners of all ages.
At the same time that DEI built its Education Center, an MTAF grant from the Maine Technology Institute helped DEI build a new pier to replace the original pier, which had collapsed in a storm due to its traditional wooden pilings being too short. The new pier was engineered to solve the piling length problem with fiber composite materials which can be manufactured to any length. The pier is 100-ft long x 30-ft wide and was completed in 2012.
Phase III: Achieving Our Vision (2014-2018)
DEI’s ultimate goal of building a full service marine research laboratory and education center was finally realized when we broke ground on the final phase of the expansion in June 2017, with construction completed in August 2018.
The Next Generation Foundation of Maine, which contributed $2 million as a challenge grant to DEI in November 2014, launched the final phase of our expansion. These funds leveraged another $2 million from the University of Maine at Machias/Alliance for Maine’s Marine Economy (through the State of Maine and the Maine Technology Institute), $1.8 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation, and an investment by Consortium America, LLC, using Maine New Markets Tax Credits.
The expanded marine laboratory and education center can now accommodate marine scientists from a variety of disciplines and interest areas, and students who wish to explore and learn about the marine environment in eastern Maine.
Our most recent expansion added marine laboratories, providing additional space for research using running seawater, ocean acidification research, bench work, and space for confidential R & D, as well as a conference room, student hosing, and service buildings. These new spaces give DEI the capacity to conduct and host diverse marine research and development efforts, as well as education initiatives.