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Running Tide oyster hatchery in Harpswell changes ownership

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The former Running Tide oyster hatchery at George J. Mitchell Field in Harpswell has been sold to a local entrepreneur for an undisclosed sum, parties involved in the transaction said this week.

The buyer, Topsham entrepreneur Matt Nixon, said he would continue to operate the facility as an oyster hatchery and would retain three of Running Tide’s former employees. Nixon, who owns Muddy River Farm Aquaponics LLC in Bath, said the Harpswell hatchery will operate under the name Merrymeeting Shellfish Co.

“I don’t plan on really changing a whole lot, with the exception of removing some of the less permanent buildings and putting something more permanent in, in addition to a … septic system, which is something that the field has lacked for quite some time, and possibly, in the future, a well,” Nixon told the Harpswell Select Board at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 25.

At the meeting, the Select Board unanimously approved a five-year lease agreement with Merrymeeting Shellfish for the 1.1-acre, town-owned site on which the hatchery stands. The company will pay just under $1,100 a month in rent, with a 3% annual increase and an option to renew the lease up to three times, with future lease rates to be negotiated later.

“Running Tide did a great job down there,” Select Board Chair Kevin Johnson told Nixon during the meeting. “I’m glad you stepped in (where) these guys left off.”

It had been an open secret for months that Running Tide, a venture-backed firm focusing on ocean carbon removal, had been planning to vacate the Harpswell facility.

The Portland-based company, which leased the Mitchell Field site in December 2018, announced in October 2022 that its previously announced plans to expand in Harpswell had been put on hold.

Running Tide had an option to lease a nearly 4-acre plot of town land for the construction of a new building but said it wanted a year “to evaluate a number of business issues” before deciding whether to exercise the option. Ultimately, it never did.

Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane told the Select Board on Thursday that last summer, the business “indicated that they would not be continuing, and so, they were looking at possibilities for who might take over the business.”

On Friday, Jan. 26, a Running Tide representative indicated Nixon’s venture was a worthy successor for the Harpswell hatchery, which Running Tide converted from a dilapidated building.

“Running Tide is thrilled that the facility will continue to produce shellfish seed for Maine’s aquaculture sector,” said Adam Baske, company vice president of coastal markets and restoration, in a news release. “We are confident that the Merrymeeting team will be a great fit.”

In May 2023, the Bath City Council approved the sale of a city-owned building along the Kennebec River to Nixon, the Times Record reported at the time. It said Nixon is credited with designing the world’s first “3D-printed, closed-loop, oyster-farming tank made from sustainable materials,” and that Muddy River Farm would be the first aquaculture business in Bath.

At Thursday’s meeting, Nixon told Harpswell officials that Maine’s aquaculture industry continues to grow every year, both in size and value, but that “the provision of seed has always been somewhat of a bottleneck,” not only in Maine but all along the East Coast.

“I’m a huge believer in the sustainability of shellfish aquaculture, not just in terms of having a crop year after year, but also the ability for it to literally clean the water as it grows, which is what shellfish do, so you have a couple different positives there,” he said.

Nixon, who is also a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine, said he wants to continue to help the industry grow, and that the Mitchell Field hatchery – one of only three facilities of its kind in Maine – will further his goal of “taking down one of the roadblocks to expansion.”

The hatchery will focus primarily on oyster seed production for the next three years, after which Nixon said he may diversify to mussel seed as well.

“There’s a pretty good market for mussels in Maine and New England in general,” he told the Select Board. “I don’t know if you’ve walked along the shore recently, but there aren’t a whole lot of blue mussels anymore.”

Nixon said that in addition to the three former Running Tide employees he’s retaining, he has another six local employees working out of Bath who will come to Harpswell during the high production season, which starts in about two weeks, “so it’s a pretty critical time for the hatchery right now.”

Former Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Steve Levesque negotiated the Merrymeeting Shellfish lease on behalf of the town. Levesque, who now runs his own firm, SHL Enterprise Solutions, expressed optimism about the future of aquaculture in Harpswell.

“I think it’s a good activity for the town, and I think it’s going to be worthwhile going forward,” he told the Select Board. “It’s going to be fun to see (Nixon’s business) grow.”

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