BEALS — Fifteen years ago, the Downeast Institute moved from an old wooden barn on the shore of Beals Island into a disused lobster storage facility on the shore of Black Duck Cove on Great Wass Island.
With the help of a National Science Foundation grant, it began work to convert the cavernous building into a shellfish production facility with a running seawater laboratory.
Seven years later, the institute completed construction of a 1,000-square-foot education center that allowed it to offer science education programs for kindergarten through 12th-grade students and their teachers from nearby schools.
Now, the institute is just weeks away from completion of a $6.6 million project that includes a greatly expanded and modernized marine laboratory and 4,500-square-foot residence hall that can accommodate up to 20 students, interns and visiting scholars.
Founded in 1987 as the Beals Island Shellfish Hatchery, in 2000 the organization changed its name to reflect its changing priorities. At that time, Director of Research Brian Beal said, he wanted the facility to serve five purposes.
“I wanted it to be a hatchery, a K through 12 education facility, a field station for the University of Maine at Machias, the easternmost marine biological research lab in the U.S. and a business incubator,” Beal said Tuesday morning as he showed visitors around the nearly completed laboratory expansion.
“Eighteen years later, we’ve got it,” or they will have it in a few more weeks.
Right now, construction workers are as much a presence on the site as the laboratory technicians and summer interns who run the hatchery, which grows seven different kinds of shellfish and the marine algae that feeds the millions of tiny bivalves held in a variety of round and square tanks. Currently, the hatchery is working with softshell clams, blue mussels, two kinds of American oysters, razor clams and Arctic surf clams.
In the last several weeks, algae production has been moved from ground level to a mezzanine above the shellfish hatchery. The move, and improvements to the system, has allowed the facility to increase algal production by 50 percent, Beal said.
The laboratory grows 13 different species of algae, usually six or seven at a time depending on the season, to provide a balanced diet for shellfish.
New LED lights and better CO2 regulation, which affects the level of acidity in the water, have resulted in an “exponential growth” in algae production, Beal said.
The hatchery and algal growth area occupies one wing of the expanded marine laboratory. Across a still bare entrance hall where visitors will eventually find a large, saltwater touch tank, contractors are putting the finishing touches on a new wing. That wing includes six offices for staff, interns and visiting researchers, a conference room, laboratories for marine research separate and apart from the hatchery operation and business incubator space that could be rented by commercial start-up ventures, Phil Yund, a larval ecologist and DEI’s senior scientist, said Tuesday.
The research wing includes two “ultra clean rooms,” Yund said, one of which has a freezer capable of reaching minus 80 degrees Celsius. Air entering the clean rooms will be filtered so they will be ideal for “molecular and genetic work.”
The business incubator space offers high security so entrepreneurs can work on proprietary ideas, but can also access a large seawater tank room. At one end of that room are three smaller “climate control” laboratories where researchers can manipulate temperature, CO2 levels (to study the impacts of ocean acidification) and periods of light and darkness.
A quarantine laboratory that Yund described as an “isolation room” will allow researchers to work with species that are not native to Maine without the fear of contaminating the local environment. The room has a floor lower than those of surrounding spaces and a drain that connects to a holding tank where chlorine will kill any organisms in the drain water before it flows back into the ocean.
On Aug. 11, the Downeast Institute will hold its 10th Annual Shellfish Field Day, a ribbon cutting celebration for the new facility with tours available to the public.