Digging into Maine’s very edible coastlines
“There is no more intimate relationship we can have with our environment than to eat from it.”
—American Catch, Paul Greenberg,
Penguin Press, NY, 2014
Winter storm Skylar, as you may recall, was blizzard number three to roar into coastal Maine during March of this year. Before that it was Riley, followed by Quinn. A fourth, Toby, pretty much missed us. Nonetheless, on an afternoon during Skylar, Eventide Oyster Co., a 50-plus seat restaurant in Portland, was at least half full. Storm-weary Mainers and those “from away” were eating oysters on a Wednesday afternoon during a whiteout.
Despite the obvious lunchtime rush, Mike Wiley, Eventide’s celebrated co-owner and chef, took a quick break from the kitchen to talk to Edible Maine about oysters. “Yesterday [while Skylar was raging],” he said, “we sold 2,002 oysters.”
Not far from Eventide, another oyster bar, Island Creek Oysters, a Massachusetts-based oyster company that sells oysters it farms in Duxbury, Massachusetts, and buys and sells oysters from other farms, is experiencing its first summer in Maine. Manager Kit Paschal says Island Creek saw “a ton of growth happening in aquaculture in Maine” as a good opportunity to get closer to the Maine oyster farmers they do business with. His thoughts on having another oyster bar, Eventide, just down the street: good for business.
Maine carries a hefty legacy of thousands of years’ worth of oyster eaters. The original hunter-gatherers, and then the Micmac and the Abenaki Native American tribes feasted on the astounding abundance of oysters to be found along the coast. They are responsible for creating the giant discarded oyster shell heap you can visit today along the banks of the Damariscotta River. Thirty feet high, 150 feet long, and around 2,000 years old, the Glidden Midden stands as testimony to the once astonishingly abundant oyster population in Maine.
Middens (essentially a dump of oyster shells) have been discovered on the East Coast that date back nearly 10,000 years. In 1609, when Henry Hudson discovered New York Harbor, it was virtually paved with billions of living oysters. Fast forward to 2007 and author Rowan Jacobsen writes in his book, A Geography of Oysters, “The combination of over-harvesting and increased erosion finished off virtually every oyster bed in the United States. As the beds emptied [starting about 300 years ago] aquaculture stepped up to replace them.”
Today, the public’s appetite for oysters is seemingly insatiable. The demand is driven by several factors, among them: a growth in the popularity of raw bars; an increase in the number of restaurants showcasing oysters on their menus; the perception of oysters as an environmentally sustainable and even restorative seafood; and, for Maine oysters, a strong brand—oysters coming out of the cold, clean waters of Maine’s coast and rivers have cachet.
By all reports, at the moment, consumer demand remains greater than supply. But Eventide’s Wiley is cautious. While he agrees that demand is still expanding, he sees the supply side “exploding,” with so many new oyster farms coming online. Jeff Auger, river manager at Mook Sea Farm in Walpole, one of the largest oyster farms in the state, calls it “the wild, wild west.”
With over 1 million acres of territorial waters in Maine, and only 293 of those held in lease to oyster aquaculture, there’s plenty of room to grow and potentially catch-up with demand. Aquaculture is the practice of growing seafood (shellfish and other bivalves, salmon, kelp, etc.) in a water environment in a controlled setting, as opposed to harvesting from the wild.
Dana Morse, a leading figure in the aquaculture industry in Maine, works at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole. “I have not done a count lately but I suspect it’s about a hundred [oyster farms in Maine] or maybe a little bit more,” she says. Shellfish have been farmed in Maine since the 1800s, but the first official aquaculture lease was issued by the state in 1973.
With an application, $50, and approval from the local harbormaster, you can be an oyster farmer, or more accurately, obtain a limited-purpose aquaculture license (an LPA) from the Maine Department of Marine Resources to culture oysters on your own piece of the ocean. With oyster prices in Maine commanding the highest landed prices in the Northeast (including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island), the future of other kinds of fishing looking murky, and the demand for oysters being what it is, it’s tempting.
With the closing of wild fisheries, commercial fishermen with on-the-water skill are choosing aquaculture as a viable alternative. Ben Hamilton, a former teacher and coach, got his LPA in 2017 to farm 400 square feet of ocean to raise his Love Point Oysters. He was drawn to oyster farming through his interest in the working waterfront, an overwhelming need to be “doing good in the world,” and a need for supplemental income. Hamilton says oyster farming addresses many of the values shared by his Millennial generation, such as the need for tangibility, a sense of place in the world, general positivity, and a connection to the natural world.
“I like being a part of the whole process,” he says, and adds that he couldn’t pursue oyster farming without the support of his wife, who has a full-time job.
So, with a total investment of about $5,000, he bought 30,000 tiny baby oysters called seed from a local hatchery at 5 cents per seed. He invested in 10 oyster-growing cages, each holding four bags of oysters (each bag can hold several hundred full-size oysters; many more when they’re tiny). He already had a boat. He floated the bags out to his little spot at the end of Mere Point and waited.
It takes about three years for an oyster to reach market size (three to four inches) in Maine’s cold waters. The wave action and the constant ebb and flow of the tides tumbles the oysters in their cages, shaping their shells, creating the round shell and deep cup that restaurants seek. Most of Hamilton’s Love Points won’t be ready for market until the fall of 2019.
“The [waiting] time is a huge barrier to entry for many farmers,” he says. “It’s not something for everyone.”
In the meantime, Hamilton has been chosen to participate in the Top Gun Program at the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs (MCE), a private nonprofit that helps Maine entrepreneurs. The state has an extensive network of aquaculture organizations that support education, business incubation, R&D, and marketing. Top Gun candidates are chosen through a competitive application process and provided with training, coaching, and mentoring in developing a product or a business model. Hamilton hopes that the Top Gun Program will help him figure out who his customers will be. He may choose to wholesale his oysters or create his own distribution network and sell directly to restaurants. Profitability may be higher in the latter case. His goal is to raise 200,000 oysters per year—a five- to 10-year plan. When we spoke in early March, the Love Points were enduring their first winter under the sea.
Many of Maine’s oyster farms are located not in the ocean, however, but in the Damariscotta River. They can range in size from 400 square feet like Hamilton’s, to more than 40 acres, like the one at Mook Sea Farm, which started in 1985 with five acres on the river and one employee. Owner Bill Mook says that for the first 20 to 25 years of the business “we were still trying to figure out what we were doing. We were solvent but there was no predictable trend in profitability. Some years we made money, some years we lost money, some years we broke even.” But by applying science, technology, and cutting-edge innovations to the oyster-rearing process, the business went from survivor-mode to being a profitable company.
In as much as Hamilton was drawn to oyster farming for the idealist’s vision it embodies, Mook, energetic, passionate, and whip-smart, came to it through science. Mook has a background in benthic science, the science of the sea bottom. His 25 employees are all young, educated, and motivated, everyone with a college degree, many in marine science. There’s Meredith White, PhD, head of research and development; and Jeff Auger, a licensed environmental attorney and now head of river operations at Mook.
“It’s a real team,” says Mook. “Their interest creates a culture of inquisitiveness and being observant. They understand the context of things.”
Mook Sea Farm is essentially two businesses—it is an oyster farm that grows several million market oysters per year, year-round. And, it is one of only two hatcheries in the state of Maine.
A hatchery is a business that grows and sells tiny, baby oysters called spat (14- to 16-day-old oysters) to other farmers. When compared to Mook’s oyster farm, which is all mud, dock, stacked cages, motors, boat equipment, and more mud, the hatchery is a different story altogether—all test tubes, beakers, bubbling green liquids, latex gloves, microscopes, and petri dishes.
Within this maze of rooms, water from the Damariscotta River is piped into the building where the oysters are grown and filtered over many days through specially designed hanging cloth bags. All of the impurities are removed, including the phytoplankton (microorganisms that drift about in the water), which is what oysters eat. That water is then subjected to ultraviolet light sterilization, and becomes the water supply for the growing oysters. Meanwhile, in another part of the building complex, the brood stock (parent oysters) is being held. Sperm and eggs are taken from them, and under highly controlled conditions, allowed to fertilize, form embryos, then larvae. The larvae are placed in giant beakers and mixed with sterilized sand, so that each larva finds a grain to attach to while it grows into a tiny oyster.
In the wild, adult oysters spawn into the water and larvae lucky enough to become larvae find something—a rock, a piling, but usually another oyster shell—to attach itself to for life. Except that in the wild, less than 1% of those fertilized eggs settles and develops into an adult oyster. In the laboratory environment of Mook, they all do.
In the wild, oysters absorb and filter minerals and nutrients from the water. They survive on phytoplankton carried in on the robust tides that scour and shape Maine’s finger estuaries. This is all the food they need. In the hatchery, baby food is usually produced in-house using photosynthesis to make micro-algae to feed the oysters. But the process requires a lot of labor, energy, and physical space.
“Trying to figure out how to grow enough food reliably and better-quality food in a very small footprint took years to figure out” says Mook.
Mook Sea Farm now uses a proprietary heterotrophic process to produce food for its oysters. The process uses sugar instead of light as an energy source.
“As far as I know we are the only commercial hatchery to grow our own food using this technology,” says Mook. It’s top secret and a little Stanley Kubrick. There’s the “gowning room” you go through first where you suit-up with Tyvek gloves and hood and bathe in bacteria-killing ultraviolet light before you enter the “clean room” where the food is actually created. This room is air pressure-controlled and hepa-filtered. Nothing is too good for these babies.
Feeding the babies begins when they are 1 day old. After a couple months of feasting on Mook’s Michelin-starred blend of “fatty acids and sterols that allow the oysters to grow really well,” they are ready for the smorgasbord of the river. The Damariscotta River, “The Napa Valley of Shellfish,” “The Cote D’or of Oyster Farming,” provides all the food the oyster needs as it grows to market size (about three inches), and takes on the taste and flavor of Maine—crisp, briny, and cold.
The babies are grown in variously sized mesh bags inside cages. Along the way, the oysters are occasionally mechanically tumbled and sorted and dragged around the river to better spots depending on water temperature, time of year, and presence of food. With their innovative equipment and careful management, Mook can have their oysters in the cooler within an hour and a half or so of harvest. They can also sell oysters throughout the winter.
Ninety-five percent of all oysters we eat in Maine and in the world are farm-raised (as opposed to wild). The species, Crassostrea virginica, aka, The Eastern Oyster, the Common Oyster, or the American Oyster, is Maine’s native bivalve, and is the species that is farmed all up and down the East Coast. There are four other species of oysters: Pacific, Kumamoto, European Flat, and Olympia. Our Maine oyster has many different market names (Pemaquids, Dodge Coves, Nonesuch, Winter Points, Mookie Blues, Glidden Points, etc.), named after their growing locations. And some say they taste like their particular place. Jacobsen writes, “More than any other food, oysters taste like the place they come from…its concave shell focusing everything that is unique about a particular body of water [temperature, salinity, algae, tides, minerals] into a morsel of flesh.” Even different oysters from different parts of the same river, like the Damariscotta, will taste differently depending on the food the tide brings to that spot on the river. In colder regions like Maine, oysters filter water more slowly, so they have more time to rest in their shell and develop the flavor of their home.
In the wild, oysters are broadcast spawners—males and females release eggs and sperm into the water when the water starts to warm. And then it’s OkCupid time until the lucky match, a fertilized egg, settles down onto something hard and stable. The tiny new oyster stuck down there on a piece of old oyster shell is probably a male, but often transfers into a female, and can trans back to being male. And go on spawning, or not, depending on who’s around and what the weather’s like. They can keep this up for 20 years.
Unlike fish farming, oyster farming has an extremely low impact on the environment—some say a restorative impact. For one thing, oysters don’t need to be fed as do farmed fish, and thus do not further deplete wild seafood stocks. For another, oysters do not generate waste or pollute the water, even in densely packed beds. Instead, they remove nitrogen from the water and improve clarity, which benefits other aquatic plants and wildlife. Even plastics and microfiber pollution that is reaching crisis proportions in the oceans does not affect oysters. Says Morse, “microfibers are definitely an area of study. But I haven’t seen anything in the scientific or popular literature that leads me to think that microfibers found in oysters causes them to be unsafe to eat.” Moreover, he says oysters purchased at retail have been raised under clean, controlled conditions, handled carefully, and exposed to water, transport, and seafood safety inspections, so you can rest assured you’re getting a healthy product.
Also, although labor-intensive, oyster farming does not require chemically treating the oysters or the water they grow in. They need a supply of good clean water, constantly refreshed, and are obsessed with keeping it that way. This further incentivizes farmers and riparians to protect the watershed.
Morse says that in 1948 scientists from Maine tried to establish Europe’s native oyster species (Ostrea edulis, aka, European Flat Oyster) in Maine. You may have heard of the Belon Oyster from the eponymous river in France. The oysters were planted in Basin Cove, Harpswell, Boothbay Harbor, the Taunton River in Franklin, and other MidCoast locations. But the oysters never took hold, mainly because the waters in Maine are too cold to sustain the species. Nevertheless, a few did reproduce and establish beds in the MidCoast region. Divers harvest these wild oysters even in winter months. Their flavor is different from the Eastern Oyster. They are larger, meatier, and described as having a smoky, coppery flavor.
Oysters are loaded with vitamins and minerals, particularly zinc, the mineral that helps the body produce testosterone. They are also natural architects. In addition to filtering and cleaning the water, providing food and habitat for other ocean creatures, and being tasty, they build reefs—dense colonies of both living and dead oysters—which help stabilize coasts and mitigate storm damage. In the wild, oyster larvae naturally seek lower ground and tend to stop when they hit, hopefully, another oyster. There they settle forever. Once settled they form a foundation layer upon which another generation of oysters can settle, and on and on, layer by layer, into the future.
Left undisturbed and unpolluted, a reef will build up to significant heights. During a coastal storm event the underwater reef acts as a natural breakwater, slowing down the wave energy before it hits shore. The Billion Oyster Project in New York has a goal of recreating 100 acres of reef and to plant 1 billion oysters in New York Harbor by 2035, hoping the mass will reduce storm damage, clean up the water, and provide habitats for other marine life. The project uses oyster shells donated from restaurants to create a substrate and invites local school kids and volunteers to act as citizen scientists to monitor the oysters.
Up around Phippsburg and Georgetown, The Nature Conservancy is spearheading an oyster restoration project in the Basin Preserve. You’ll also find oyster restoration projects going on all over the coastal United States, as well as internationally.
Aquaculture is no longer the wave of the future—it’s here—turning lobstermen into farmers and giving them an opportunity to have a future on the water. Scientists are experimenting with clam farming and mussel farmers can’t keep up with demand. The demand for high-quality, cold-water oysters is rising, with Maine projected to be the Northeast’s leader. Mook feels it.
“As I’ve gotten older I think there’s a lot of room for increasing oyster consumption and oyster farms. Rather than fight over pieces of the pie we just need to make the pie bigger.”
Hamilton would agree. After all, he chose to name his oysters Love Points because, he says, “love is the point.”
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Maine and, formerly, to Edible Boston. She loves to tell the stories of the dedicated and passionate men and women of Maine who produce our food, and about what it takes to get it to our plates.