SWAN’S ISLAND — When long-time fisherman Jason Joyce decided to start Swan’s Island Oyster Farm two years ago, he knew there was risk involved, but there has been help along the way.
With the guidance of a new Aquaculture Business Development (ABD) program offered by the Rockland-based Island Insitute, Joyce and his cousin, Josh Joyce, decided to diversify their income by creating another potential revenue stream through oyster farming.
Both Joyce men have worked on the water for the last three decades as fishermen and are familiar with the ebb and flow of the ocean economy.
“We’re targeting people in coastal communities,” said Peter Piconi, program director for the Island Institute. “We’re seeing 50 applications a year. We can only accept about 25 participants each year… The fact that we walk through [the new aquaculture business] with them for a year is what makes it such a good program.”
In addition to oysters, the ABD program also focuses on seaweed, mussel and scallop businesses.
“Josh and I are both eighth-generation islanders and commercial fishermen with zero experience in aquaculture,” said Joyce in a press statement. “The ABD program gave us the chance to consider the benefits while also weighing the costs of starting an oyster farm of our own.”
It is too soon to tell whether Swan’s Island Oyster Farm will be lucrative. The last two years have been all about investing in the new business. It may be another couple of years before Jason Joyce realizes a return on his investment. He compares the business’s current process to a dripping faucet.
“[A] little here and a little there actually adds up to a decent amount each year,” he said. “The time invested is substantial, but we are used to working long hours with no pay, that’s part of the fishing business.”
Joyce lists supplies such as seed stock, which take three years to grow; bags for the new oysters, which he purchases 100 at a time; lines, anchors, buoys and the state’s licensing program application as part of the business’s necessary investment.
“The biggest deterrent, in my opinion, is the paperwork associated with the LPAs and/or lease,” said Joyce in an email. “It’s not simple and takes years off your life trying to fill things out correctly.”
He is referring to the limited-purpose aquaculture (LPA) licensing program through which applicants obtain a one-year license to grow specific species using particular gear types. An LPA operation may cover no more than 400 square feet, according to the Department of Marine Resources website. Each year, until Swan’s Island Oyster Farm determines their permanent location, they will have to apply for another one-year license.
The Island Institute is accepting applications for the next round of the ABD program. In its first three years, there have been 75 participants with a total of 20 starting businesses with crops in the water. The organization estimates these businesses have contributed $3.1 million to Maine’s economy.
“We took the plunge two years ago and started Swan’s Island Oyster Farm,” said Joyce. “We’ll be putting our oysters on the market this spring, and we couldn’t have done it without [the Island Institute’s] help.”
Once their oysters are ready for harvest, Josh and Jason Joyce will rely on the relationships they’ve built as fishermen to sell their new product. Oysters from Swan’s Island Oyster Farm are expected to go as far south as Portland and as close as Trenton and locations on the island in the summer.
“Our relationships with these markets are longstanding relationships we have developed in the lobster and seafood industry over the last 30 years,” said Jason Joyce in an email. “We take pride in all of the products we have sold over the years.”
Swan’s Island Oyster Farm’s return on investment is dependent on overwintering losses and normal risks associated with raising oysters, according to Jason Joyce. He adds that he would be tickled if the business breaks even once they start selling product.
“There is a risk in everything, but as in life, nothing ventured nothing gained,” said Joyce. “We are having a good time and learning much so that hopefully we can help the people coming behind us here on the island who try [farming] oysters as well. We help others when and where we can.”