Ryan McPherson says he bought Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb last year partly because, unlike lobster, “with this, we can participate in a different market. The consumer is appreciating the oyster and the way it is grown, you can differentiate yourself.” Staff photos by Derek Davis

The cold saltwater along Maine’s coast harbors a growing oyster industry that is riding the bivalves’ blossoming popularity and the state’s reputation for quality seafood. Experts predict that the industry, which had a record year in 2016, could triple in size within the next dozen years.

“It is actually quite simple, the Maine oyster is viewed as the preeminent oyster in the marketplace because of water quality and low water temperature,” said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association.

For decades, oyster farming operations were concentrated in the Damariscotta River, which is known for having the right temperature and water quality. The region’s reputation for consistently excellent oysters has been burnished by chefs and food writers who have visited the area to meet oyster farmers and sample the buttery, sweet flavor of their product, Belle said.

Now new farmers trying their hand at growing oysters have moved outside the Damariscotta River – farms small and large can be found along the entire coast, from the Piscataqua River in Eliot to Little Machias Bay in Cutler. Pushing the expansion is demand. Oyster landings have increased 254 percent and the harvest’s value has grown about 300 percent since 2011, state records show.

“The demand for Maine oysters is just crazy. We cannot grow enough of them,” Belle said.

Maine’s oyster farmers hauled in 2.1 million pounds of oysters worth $5 million in 2016, the highest-value crop on record, according to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Last year capped five seasons of sustained growth after a rare outbreak of bacterial disease in 2009-10 killed off young oysters in the Damariscotta River and knocked the industry on its heels. In those last five years, oyster farmers saw their per-pound price rise about 25 percent, from $2.09 to $2.62.

BRAND AWARENESS AMONG DINERS

Industry experts predict more growth on the horizon. Raw oysters on the half-shell are increasing in popularity in the United States alongside the boom in “foodie” culture. Although Maine grows a fraction of what is produced in traditional oyster-growing regions like the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, the state’s oyster farmers have carved out a reputation for taste and quality that drives intense demand.

Oysters sit in holding crates at Glidden Point Oyster Farm. New oyster farmers have moved outside the Damariscotta River, and operations can now be found from the Piscataqua River in Eliot to Little Machias Bay in Cutler.

“Maine’s brand for seafood is very strong, folks around the country trust products coming out of Maine, we have clean water and a really great seafood product,” said Eric Horne, who is in his 18th year of growing oysters in the Freeport area and distributes as far as Chicago and Texas. Current demand doesn’t begin to touch the vast number of oysters that Americans consumed near the end of the 19th century, before water pollution and disease devastated mid-Atlantic growing areas. As Americans rediscover the country’s love affair with oysters, more territory is going to open up to shellfish farmers, Horne predicts.

“There are countervailing forces – if you have a lot of supply, more outlets will pick it up,” he said. “I think that has been the case in Maine. Oysters will just reach a larger and larger audience. There are cities all across the country that don’t have a raw bar, and they could.”

National oyster demand is expected to outpace supply for the next three to five years and remain strong for at least the next 15 years, according to a 2016 market report on Maine shellfish produced by the Hale Group, a research organization in Danvers, Massachusetts, for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Maine’s oyster production accounted for only about 4 percent of the entire U.S. production, but that percentage could increase dramatically if the state doubled its 600 acres of oyster farms, it said.

Maine oysters fetch some of the highest prices nationally, and consumers are willing to pay a premium – roughly 58 cents per oyster, according to the report – because the state’s product is considered higher-quality than those from other regions. Maine is within 48 hours of six of the country’s biggest metropolitan areas, as well as Montreal and Toronto in Canada.

With those factors combined, Maine could triple its oyster production and double its value by 2030, according to researchers’ estimates.

“Oysters are grown up and down the East Coast, but we seem to have a very strong market,” said Christopher Davis, head of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and part owner of Pemaquid Oyster Co. in Damariscotta. “We don’t see a real impact for this growth for at least five years out until we start to bump onto each other’s toes.”

Ryan McPherson says that despite heavy demand for oysters, he doesn’t plan sudden growth for Glidden Point Oyster Farm. It already sells across the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Staff photo by Derek Davis

NEW PLAYERS AND INVESTMENT

The boom is also propelling startup companies aimed at growing Maine oysters faster and more effectively. Brunswick Shellfish Developers and Open Ocean Oysters recently were awarded $25,000 grants from the Maine Technology Institute, funding that leveraged more than $180,000 in other investment.

“I do think the oyster industry in Maine is robust and has excellent potential for continued growth. The projects fit well within our funding criteria and have potential to boost the impact of the oyster fishery in our state,” said Brian Whitney, president of the institute.

“Clearly, Maine oysters have a solid market and loyal customer following and the products from Damariscotta, Pemaquid, Castine and other locations are highly sought after.”

Some of the farmers in the Damariscotta River, like Davis, have been working with oysters for decades, but the emerging industry has attracted young entrepreneurs drawn to try their hand at sustainable oyster farming. The Maine Aquaculture Association and other groups have encouraged youth from traditional fishing families to take up aquaculture, believing that their waterfront skills and knowledge will translate well to growing shellfish.

Out of the 62 large, long-term aquaculture leases for oysters, about 22 were approved in the past five years, said Diantha Robinson, aquaculture hearings officer for the Department of Marine Resources. Alongside the larger leases are about 300 smaller growing sites that can be renewed annually. The department doesn’t have a way to track how many leases and licenses have been approved over time, but there has definitely been an uptick in applications to grow oysters in the past five years, Robinson said.

Getting approval for a long-term lease can be a years-long process, so many farmers start out with a smaller plot before deciding whether to invest in a larger operation. It can take at least four years to grow the first oyster crop, not including the time it takes to get state permits, so choosing a good location is crucial, said Davis, from the Aquaculture Innovation Center. The center loans equipment to prospective farmers to help them choose the right place to farm.

“If you are going to spend five years before you make your first dollar, you better make sure you have the best site,” Davis said.

AN AFFINITY FOR THE PRODUCT

Ryan McPherson, a 32-year-old originally from Marshfield, Massachusetts, worked in the fishing industry all over New England before buying Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb last year. He gravitated to oyster farming because it was a unique product he could brand, unlike the lobster industry, which is dependent on volume.

“A lobster is a lobster, you get market price,” McPherson said. “With this, we can participate in a different market. The consumer is appreciating the oyster and the way it is grown, you can differentiate yourself.”

Glidden Point was an established farm when McPherson bought it, and he doesn’t plan sudden growth for the company. It already sells across the country, distributing to Chicago, Atlanta and Charleston, South Carolina, and ships as far away as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Bill Mook, who owns Mook Sea Farm in Walpole, is one of the original Damariscotta River oyster farmers who started in the 1980s. Mook grows both oysters for market and seed oysters for other farmers. After more than 30 years in the business, he’s not surprised that oysters are taking off, and plans to double the size of his operation. Even though prices are bound to come down at some point, there is still plenty of room for growth in the industry, he said.

“I see there is a lot of interest statewide, (and) I think it is going to grow,” Mook said. “The big question is the market demand and how that matches up with supply. I think people who are not growing oysters cost-effectively are going to have more problems when the supply and demand match up closer to one another.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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