Selecting a half-shell at the 2022 OysterFest in Portland, an annual event that spotlights dozens of Maine’s farmed oysters. Photo by Diane Hudson

We’re into the “R months,” the stretch from September to April when oysters are at their culinary peak. In Maine, half-shell fans and lovers of local seafood have more cause for excitement each year as oyster farms continue to proliferate along the state’s coast.

Maine has more than 150 licensed oyster farms stretching from Kittery to Beals in Washington County. According to the state Department of Marine Resources, Maine’s oyster farmers last year hauled in more than 3 million pounds of the bivalves with an $8.3 million value.

Those figures are down from 2021’s record-setting 5 million-pound, $11.2 million harvest, and the state’s oyster farming numbers in general are dwarfed by Maine’s 108 million-pound, $725 million lobster catch in 2021. But it’s impressive nonetheless for a relatively new marine industry.

Some of Maine’s most veteran oyster farms like Dodge Cove Marine Farms and Pemaquid Oyster Co. have been in business since the 1970s and ’80s, but most operations are well under 10 years old. Area oyster experts see a number of factors behind the growth in Maine oyster farming.


“There’s been a push toward reconnecting with the ocean, passion for the environment, passion for Maine,” said John Herrigel, owner of Maine Oyster Company oyster bar in Portland and the boutique oyster farm Cape Small, located at the easternmost point of Casco Bay. “Some people are looking for something different to do in the world that they’re passionate about, and oyster farming is a great opportunity.”


“What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of interest, especially among young people, in starting new business on the working waterfront,” said Afton Vigue, communications and outreach manager for the Maine Aquaculture Association, which spearheads the Maine Oyster Trail, a tourism initiative featuring an interactive online map and other key info about Maine oysters. “Aquaculture has given them the opportunity to develop innovative new sustainable businesses on the waterfront.

John Herrigel, founder and co-owner of Maine Oyster Co. in Portland and owner of Cape Small Oysters in Phippsburg, points out oyster farm locations on a map of operations along the coast. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Many millennials and older Gen Zers are looking for “green career opportunities,” Vigue continued. “Oyster farming appeals to them for that reason – it’s a sustainable living and a great way to produce food with a low impact,” she said. “And I think it’s also a very romantic way to live. A lot of people love the idea of working out on the water everyday, and not stuck at a desk all the time.”

Herrigel said the excitement Maine’s oyster farmers have for their work helps draw newcomers.

“That’s what makes the industry so fun,” he said. “You’re not defaulting to it, you’re doing it because you love the ocean, you love Maine, you love being part of a cool thing and you’re entrepreneurial.”

Herrigel also said, from a financial standpoint, the barriers to entry are low for a small-scale oyster farm.

“You don’t need a lot of capital, you just need the ability to use a boat and have access (to the water),” he said, estimating that a small farm could launch with just $2,500 to cover the costs of baby oysters to seed the farm, equipment and licensing. “A small farm is a legitimate side hustle for about half the farms in Maine.”



Of the five oyster species native to the United States, the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is native to Maine. The state has four general oyster farming “regions”: southern Maine, Casco Bay, Midcoast and Down East. And while there are practical differences between those areas – the colder waters Down East mean an oyster may take three to four years to mature there, versus two years in the comparatively warmer Damariscotta – the state’s farms are all breeding the same species of oyster.

Moreover, the majority of Maine farms are clustered together along the coast and the Damariscotta and New Meadows rivers. “We’re talking oysters grown within 50 miles of each other as the crow flies, every single oyster grown from essentially the same parents and using very similar methods,” said Herrigel.

John Herrigel opens local oysters at Maine Oyster Co. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Both Herrigel and Vigue note that Maine’s oysters all tend to taste “sweet and briny,” largely because of the region’s cold, salty waters. “You read almost any description of any Maine oyster, ‘sweet’ and ‘briny’ are two words that are going to show up,” Herrigel said.

But there’s plenty of room for flavor nuance beyond those broad descriptors – oysters can develop subtle yet distinct taste characteristics depending on how and precisely where they were farmed.

A long list of variables determine the full flavor profile of farmed oysters, including water temperature and salinity levels, the nutrients the oysters receive from the phytoplankton and algae they feed on and whether they were grown close to the water’s surface or on a river bed or shallow ocean floor. Herrigel notes, for instance, that bottom-planted oysters pick up a greenish cast to their shells and earthy, mineral flavors from the surrounding silt or sand.


“Two farms in the same river may not even have similar tasting oysters,” said Vigue.

“On New Meadows River you’ll find differences, depending how close to the sea the oysters were farmed,” said Trixie Betz, outreach and development specialist at the Maine Aquaculture Association. “A lot of people are fascinated by that, because you wouldn’t think the same body of water would have that much difference.”

Herrigel said there are two main tastes to an oyster, the meat taste and the water taste. “Water taste can fluctuate widely depending on the time of year the oyster was harvested, how much it rained and diluted the salt, the effect of any algae blooms and so on,” he said.


“I could not tell you which farm an oyster is from by tasting, but I can absolutely go to the OysterFest and taste four different oysters in a row from four different farms, and they taste different,” said Gillian Britt, founder of Harvest on the Harbor, Portland’s annual, multi-day culinary event that includes OysterFest. “Some will be on the sweet side, some taste like a delicious mouthful of ocean, and some have that little bit of minerality like a dry wine. You can definitely taste the difference.”

Herrigel helps Britt coordinate OysterFest, and serves as the point person for the more than 30 Maine oyster farmers participating in this year’s tasting event on Saturday. Britt said she started OysterFest in 2018 after noticing that Maine’s only big oyster event was the the annual Pemaquid Oyster Festival in September, which features only Damariscotta River-based farms.


“It made sense to create something where all the Maine oyster farms and oyster lovers could come together. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a really fun time, and every year it’s gotten better,” Britt said, adding that event-goers slurp down more than 10,000 oysters at the fest each year. “I love having the opportunity to connect the people who have put their heart and soul into producing something with those who want to taste what they’ve grown.”

As for the timing of these fall oyster events, Vigue explained the culinary significance of the “R months.” In the spring and summer, oysters are busy eating and growing. But as temperatures start to drop in September, they put their energy into storing glycogen, a form of glucose (sugar), so they can survive the winter in dormant mode.

“So eating them in the R months, particularly September through December, you’re going to get the maximum sweetness out of the oyster,” she said. “And the meats are really plump in the R months, because they fatten up as they store sugar.”

In short, the time is right to slurp down some oysters, and celebrate the fruits of Maine’s oyster farms. “We’re developing some pretty delicious, amazing oysters in Maine that I think stand up to any oyster around the world,” Vigue said.


Here are a half dozen Maine oysters to try from different parts of the state.


NONESUCH EMERALDS (named for the green tint of the shell)

Farm: Nonesuch Oysters, Scarborough (Nonesuch River, southern Maine)

Method: Bottom-planted

Tasting notes: Hearty, rich meat with a fantastic balance of brine and sweetness, hints of earth, and a silky, smooth texture


Farm: Nauti Sisters Sea Farm, Yarmouth (Casco Bay)


Method: Surface-grown

Tasting notes: Plump, full-body oyster with a savory brine and a delicate, sweet, earthy finish


Farm: Maine Ocean Farms, Freeport (Casco Bay)

Method: Surface-grown

Tasting notes: Fat, firm and every shell is chock full. Flavor is salty and sweet with a crisp finish



Farm: Ferda Farms, Brunswick (New Meadows River)

Method: Surface-grown

Tasting notes: Briny, mildly sweet flavor with a honey-dew finish


Farm: Pemaquid Oyster Co., Bristol (Damariscotta River)


Method: Bottom-planted

Tasting notes: A distinctive clean, salty and refreshing flavor


Farm: Bar Harbor Oyster Company, Mount Desert Narrows (Down East/Acadia)

Method: Surface-grown

Tasting notes: A briny, buttery taste that is both savory and sweet with a rich umami base

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