CRANBERRY ISLES — Back when Lauren Gray was working for Commercial Fisheries News, she wrote a couple of feature stories about aquaculture.
“I thought it was really neat,” she said. “But at the time I didn’t have any idea I was going to become an oyster farmer.”
A few years later, when she got a job teaching science, reading and writing at the Ashley Bryan School, she and her husband Josh moved to Islesford. And soon after that she began working in the summers as a sternman for lobstermen Ricky Alley and Danny Fernald.
“I just loved being on the water all the time,” she said. “So, I started thinking about what I could do to make that a life.”
She decided that operating an oyster farm was the answer. She started it three years ago on eight 400-square-foot Limited Purpose Aquaculture (LPA) sites in The Pool, which is nearly surrounded by Great Cranberry Island. She leases the sites from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
After teaching for five years, Gray left that job when school ended in June to devote herself full time to the business of raising oysters. She sold her first oysters — an order for 24 dozen — the weekend before Labor Day.
“That was pretty exciting,” she said.
“It took them three years to grow to cocktail size, about two-and-a-half to three inches. I’ve just been selling them to people locally. I have a little sign-up sheet at the Great Cranberry General Store.”
Gray said she plans to work on obtaining a license that will allow her to sell her oysters commercially.
As oyster farms go, hers is pretty small. She currently has about 40 cages in the water and hopes eventually to raise 100,000 oysters a year.
“The cages float on the surface and the oysters just filter water like crazy,” she said. “The larger ones can each filter 50 gallons of water a day.”
The oysters are suspended in bags in the cages, and as they grow, she moves them to larger bags.
“That’s a very tedious process because they grow at different rates, so it’s a lot of sorting,” she said.
But at least it’s a lot less expensive than it might have been.
“My father-in-law, Ed Gray, looked at a model of a sorting machine, which costs something like $15,000, and made me one out of spare parts,” Gray said. “He’s one of a bunch of helpers; I have a good volunteer work force.”
In November, she will sink the oyster cages to the ocean floor, where they will remain until April.
“In the winter, I’ll be building [oyster] bags, working on the paperwork for my lease and focusing on the business side, like creating a website and setting up a company,” Gray said.
She’s calling the business Cranberry Oysters.
Before getting it off the ground — or, rather, in the water — she said she got valuable experience working for her friend Joanna Fogg, who had just started her own aquaculture farm in Thomas Bay called Bar Harbor Oyster Co. She also took part in a program offered through the Island Institute.
“They had educational sessions on aquaculture and the different species you could raise,” she said. “I chose oysters.”