May 30, 2011

Oyster farmers crack open a hungry market

Demand for Maine mollusks has growers seeking licenses for larger-scale operations.

By Ann S. Kim akim@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

SCARBOROUGH - Standing on his pontoon workstation, Nate Perry scooped young inch-and-a-half-long oysters into plastic mesh bags. Good weather meant an opportunity to deploy some floating bags and get the shellfish on the way to market size.

click image to enlarge

Nate Perry is growing oysters on the Scarborough River.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Abigail Carroll of Nonesuch Oysters holds a Belon oyster.

Additional Photos Below

By this time of year, nearly all the bags have been set out. The warm waters of the Scarborough River will encourage the oysters to pump and take in nutrients after their winter hibernation. When they reach cocktail size -- 3 inches -- Perry, a one-man operation, will be able to harvest them and sell them to markets and restaurants hungry for Maine oysters.

Perry and Abigail Carroll, another fledgling farmer, are among the first to try oyster aquaculture in the Scarborough River. The location, with its tidal currents and particular nutrients, creates oysters that they try to describe with such adjectives as briny, sweet, creamy and grassy.

"That's what an oyster is -- it's the taste of the sea where it came from," Perry said.

While Carroll sees continued high demand for Maine oysters, she cautions that oyster aquaculture isn't for everyone. The work, she notes, is dirty, hard and very physical.

Carroll and Perry each use bags with foam floats that are connected to lines. The systems vary in the details, and Carroll and her two part-time employees do some of their work on the beach at low tide rather than on a pontoon like Perry does.

But each of them will have to flip the bags regularly to dry out the algae that forms on the wet side and root out invaders such as starfish and crabs. As the oysters grow, the farmers have to sort them into different bags to provide them more room.

"You've got to really nurture these guys," Carroll said.

It takes about three years to grow oyster seeds -- specks about 2 millimeters big -- to market size. Carroll got a jump start with her initial batch by starting with juveniles.

Perry and Carroll each are looking to expand small operations around Nonesuch Point after an initial go under small-scale licenses that limit operations to 400 square feet. Under the new licenses they're seeking, Perry could expand to 1.4 acres and Carroll to 4 acres.

A third license holder, Ernest Heether, began a venture with Carroll before they went their separate ways. Heether, who could not be reached, has renewed his small-scale license with the state.

The expansions planned by Perry and Carroll come at time when aquaculture is becoming the new face of the working waterfront in Maine, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. The sector is growing as it becomes more difficult to make a living in traditional fishing, whether because of limits on the resources or a lack of available licenses, he said.

Perry, who comes from a lobstering family, also makes his living by teaching music and working at J's Oyster in Portland. (His shucking skills -- he's done about 1,000 in an hour -- once won him a state title.) Carroll is an entrepreneur who got immersed in oyster aquaculture after deciding to investigate the concept and work on a business plan.

Oyster aquaculture in Maine is centered on the Damariscotta River, where research at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in South Bristol and warm water create a hospitable environment. More than 72 percent of last year's harvest -- some 2.96 million oysters -- were from the Damariscotta River.

Interest in oyster aquaculture has been increasing slowly and steadily, said Jon Lewis, aquaculture environmental coordinator at the state Department of Marine Resources. There are about 150 oyster sites in the state, with some businesses operating multiple sites.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Abigail Carroll inspects one of her oyster bags on the Scarborough River.

click image to enlarge

Nate Perry fills an oyster bag that will be placed in the Scarborough River to allow the oysters to mature. It takes about three years to grow oyster seeds – about 2 millimeters big – to market size.

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

  


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)