BAR HARBOR — Matt Gerald became an oyster farmer by accident.
Five or six years ago, Joe Porada of Acadia Bays Clam and Oyster accidentally spilled baby oysters into the ocean. A few years later, Porada found some of the oysters and noticed that they were growing well. When Gerald heard about it, he decided to jump into the water with oyster farming.
Gerald, who started growing oysters four years ago, first relied on a few limited-purpose aquaculture licenses and then on an experimental lease, which is easier to obtain than a longer-term lease but expires after three years. His operation is called Western Bay Oyster Company.
On Feb. 6, the Maine Department of Marine Resources held a public meeting at the Bar Harbor Municipal Building for Gerald to lay out his plans and answer questions from the public. These scoping sessions are a required step before filing for a standard lease. The lease would remain valid for up to 20 years and would allow him to spread the culture over a larger area.
No one at the meeting voiced any concerns about Gerald’s operation.
Gerald believes his project is facing little opposition because he spoke with all his neighbors before moving forward and explained to them that the project mostly would be out of sight, since his oysters grow at the bottom of the ocean.
What tends to create conflict between property owners and sea farmers, he said, are “top-grow” operations using floating cages, which look more industrial and may be noisier.
“People pay a lot of taxes to live on the ocean, and they feel like they own the view. But they don’t really own the view. The view is commonwealth,” said Gerald.
Gerald has been a land farmer since 1984 but said he’s always been interested in working waterfronts.
“It’s part of our history and part of our culture, but it’s been suffering.”
He’s a member the Bar Harbor Marine Resources Committee and allows other aquaculture growers to access the ocean through his property “to help out this enterprise.”
He said he got involved with growing oysters in particular “because they’ve become part of the palette here.”
Gerald’s lease would be located on a 3.36-acre site in Blue Hill Bay, south of Old House Cove. He intends to request authorization for a population of up to 1.5 million American oysters at any given time, aged one to four years, and a maximum number of 5,000 ADPI bags, which are netlike sacks made of a rough, black plastic called “polypropylene.”
The bags measure 36 by 16 by 4 inches but can come in different sized mesh to accommodate the growing oysters. Smaller oysters require tighter mesh to thwart predators. When the oysters are more mature, a larger mesh helps them feed and filter water more easily.
Like a farmer buying seeds, Gerald first purchases baby oysters, or spat, from a hatchery. Harvesting oysters that way is also what prevents them from being overexploited.
There are only three shellfish hatcheries in Maine, and the variety of oysters that Gerald buys has been developed by Rutgers University to resist some of the diseases that have inflicted the coast in the past, he said.
“Disease resistance is becoming more and more important because the Gulf of Maine is warming up, and there are more diseases coming up the coast from down south.”
The oysters that Gerald buys also are relatively bigger in size, 8-9 mm. Buying smaller spat is cheaper, he said, but they also have a higher chance of mortality and would require more nurturing before they’re dropped in the ocean in bags.
When they are spat, thousands of oysters can go in the same bag. As they grow, though, they have to be redistributed less densely. Gerald and his team do the labor-intensive work of retrieving the bags, stringing out the oysters and grading them. They have to make sure that oysters in the same bag are of the same size, “otherwise the smaller ones get outcompeted for food,” said Gerald.
Right before they go out to market, there are about 100 oysters in a bag. Growing them under the ocean takes four to five years, which is almost twice as long as a “top grow” operation, but Gerald said they taste better and have a thicker shell.
In the summer, the unfastened oyster bags sink to the bottom due to their weight. The bags are clipped to a line, at the end of which is a small float that marks the culture’s location and provides something for the growers to grab.
Western Bay is relatively shallow, and so an anchoring system is needed in the winter to prevent losses by sea ice and storms. Usually the bags are anchored with a piece of cast concrete and polypropylene rope. To retrieve the bags, growers sometimes have to chainsaw through the ice.
Aside from winter weather hazards, there is the challenge of protecting the oysters from underwater predators, predominantly sea stars, which force their stomachs into the oysters and digest them.
“So far, our loss has been under 15 percent, so we don’t worry about it, because there’s always mortality,” said Gerald.
Flora Drury, a marine scientist with the aquaculture staff at the Department of Marine Resources, laid out the next steps of the standard lease application process at the meeting. As soon as Gerald places his application, she said, the DMR will review it, conduct a site visit, issue a site report and then hold a public hearing. After a final review by the DMR and the attorney general, a final decision is issued, and the paperwork is completed.
If everything goes by smoothly, she said Gerald’s proposal may be approved as early as this fall.