Volunteers and local organizations want to grow a natural oyster reef in a portion off the coast of Phippsburg, but these tasty shellfish won’t be for eating.

If successful, the group believes an oyster reef will bring a slew of environmental benefits to the area to fight “the immense amount of change we’re seeing in our waters,” said Marissa McMahan, a senior fisheries scientist at Manomet, a Brunswick-based conservation nonprofit involved in the project.

The group of roughly 14 volunteers from Manomet, the Phippsburg Conservation Commission, Bates-Morse Mountain, local residents, oyster farmers and shellfish harvesters is growing the oysters in a protected area of the New Meadows River off the coast of Phippsburg.

Phippsburg Conservation Commission member and volunteer Dot Kelly washes the juvenile oysters with water before putting them back into the water to grow. Kelly is part of a group that hopes to create an oyster reef off the coast of Phippsburg. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Oyster reefs have been grown in other parts of the east coast and have proven to improve water quality, protect a shoreline from erosion and storm surge, and act as a habitat for other smaller shellfish, expanding an area’s biodiversity.

“We need to create these very resilient ecosystems that can support abundant species that potentially be commercial resources,” said McMahan. “Creating thriving habitats will only be beneficial to commercial populations.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the environmental benefits an oyster brings stem from how they eat: by filtering algae. One oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water per day, and that clearer, cleaner water can support underwater grasses that other marine species like crabs, scallops and fish use for a habitat.

Oyster reefs are also known to fight against other symptoms of global warming including storm surge and coastal erosion because the reefs form vertical underwater structures that break up waves and help hold the coastline in place.

“When you think about it, the ways people have protected a coast from storm surge like cement walls, but we know these don’t work very well,” said McMahan. “An oyster reef is a natural structure you’re putting between the coast and ocean that works better than a cement barrier.”

While the protected part of the New Meadows River the oysters are in now doesn’t necessarily need protection against storm surge and beach erosion, McMahan said Maine’s success can be used as a model for other cold water regions.

The project is the continuation of a two-year pilot program the Nature Conservancy began in 2017. The conservatory’s goal was to see if an oyster reef could be grown on the ocean floor in the Gulf of Maine, which is warming faster than 99% of the world’s large bodies of saltwater, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Oysters have such a large capacity for water filtration and shellfish reefs, in general, have a lot of habitat value. With the emerging oyster industry in Maine, we wanted to see if there was a possibility for us to do a non-commercial-based project that benefits the environment.”

“We know from neighbors that in the 1950s, the basin was full of shellfish, but mostly clams, mussels and scallops,” said Phippsburg Conservation Commission member and volunteer Dot Kelly. “With climate warming, our waters are now capable of supporting oysters, which is exciting.”

Phippsburg Conservation Commission member and volunteer Dot Kelly pours a bag of juvenile oysters onto a strainer to inspect and wash them. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

The project is funded by a $1,000 start-up aid from the Nature Conservancy and donations from the community, according to Kelly.

The Phippsburg group is raising its oysters in bags that float on the surface of the water, keeping the oysters away from predators and in warmer water at the surface. The group is waiting for the oysters to grow to about 30-35 millimeters in length before releasing them into the ocean. The hope is they’ll attach to one another and grow as a vertical structure.

Phippsburg Conservation Commission member and volunteer Dot Kelly kayaks to shore with a bag of oysters in tow. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

“By putting them on the surface in the warmer water, they grow faster and it keeps them away from predators like green crabs,” said Dean Doyle, a local clam digger assisting with the project. “The green crabs find them in a matter of minutes and eat them, shell and everything. They’re nasty.”

Doyle has been harvesting shellfish in the southern Midcoast for 25 years. Despite his decades of experience, he said attempting to build the oyster reef is “the most fun thing I’ve ever done on the ocean; it’s neat to take a bag of seed that’s two handfuls and watch them grow.”

Although the Nature Conservancy didn’t grow a towering reef in its initial program, Nature Conservancy Climate Adaptation Program Director Jeremy Bell said the organization deems the program a success because “The question was whether we could grow an oyster on the bottom in a wild habitat and the answer was yes.”

Other oysters in the initial attempt, however, were eaten by green crabs, an invasive species that preys on baby clams, oysters and lobster and destroys eelgrass in its hunt for food. Some oysters also sank into the mud of softer parts of the ocean floor and suffocated.

The conservancy was interested in continuing the program but didn’t have the funding or staff at the time, so it was given to the Phippsburg group, said Bell.

“We wanted to keep the project going, so the community-based approach Phippsburg is taking is really exciting,” said Bell.

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