BAR HARBOR— Chris Kane’s small oyster farm in Western Bay is off to a successful start. A local lobster fisherman for the last 15 years, Kane was recently granted a limited purpose aquaculture license to try his hand at growing the tasty bivalve.
Farming oysters not only can help supply fresh products to meet market demand but can also keep the waters and the surrounding environment clean. Oysters eat naturally occurring plankton and algae and an adult oyster can also filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day. “Since people started farming oysters, I have heard that there are now wild growing populations of oysters, which is good,” said Kane.
Last year, Kane applied for a limited purpose aquaculture (LPA) license with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to grow oysters. LPAs differ from a standard aquaculture lease in that its term is only for one year and the cultivation space is limited to 400 square feet. It didn’t take long for the DMR to approve Kane for an LPA license that permitted him up to 400 square feet of area, he said.
“You have to do the paperwork and you can’t just apply to put one anywhere,” said Kane, adding that “it took me a while to really pick a good site out.”
But, for larger areas with long-term leases, “especially the big, big ones, you have to have a full public hearing where an ad is placed in the paper for it,” he said. Aside from the hurdle of finding a decent location, Kane said it was easy for him to get an LPA.
The DMR keeps oyster farming tightly regulated because they don’t want oysters swapping around as they travel up and down the coast. “The DMR doesn’t want people just getting their seed wherever they can find it; people kind of have to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s with them. I needed to assure them I was on the up and up with everything,” said Kane.
According to the DMR, only oyster seeds and stock coming directly from Maine’s hatcheries can be placed at LPA sites. The reason for this is to prevent cross contamination among the different populations.
This July, Kane purchased 35,000 9-13 mm baby oysters from a Maine hatchery to start his operation.
“My oysters were about the size of a dime when I got them, which is actually a pretty developed oyster. It already looks like an oyster. I wasn’t about to get a bunch of spat that made it unrecognizable.”
Maine hatcheries also sell eyed oyster larvae (also called spat), which are floating sea critters that settle to the bottom of the water and start growing into an oyster after a few days. Hatcheries also have everything from 1-13 mm sized oysters for sale. Kane said that people pay a lot more for the tougher 9-13 mm oysters because they are out of the larvae stage.
“Especially the 9-13 mm ones, you could be a little sloppy with it and you wouldn’t kill a bunch,” he said.
The smaller the oyster, the more sensitive it is to the water temperature and weather conditions. “The 1-3 mm oysters from the hatchery are pretty fragile… if the water temperature is too hot or cold when you put them in there, or if you get weather while they’re still small, shaking around in their cages, you’re going to lose them right off the bat because most of the cages all float on the surface.”
The oysters Kane bought were bagged and transported inside a foam cooler. Bags from the hatcheries come in different mesh diameters.
“I started my 9 mm oysters out in a 4-mm holed bag because if someone were trying to put 9-13 mm oysters in a 12-mm holed bag, or even an 8-mm or 9-mm holed bag, they would lose a lot because it’s rough sizing; people want their meshed bag’s hole size to be about half the size of their seed.”
He then brought the oysters to his spot and put them in cages. “Essentially, you have a six-bay cage. The oysters in the meshed bags go in the floating cages, which provide a structure for them to grow,” said Kane. When the oysters become larger next year, his cages will move up in size, but they are small for now.
“I have two leases because I wanted to try something different; a lease with cages on the bottom and a lease with cages on the surface.”
To avoid harsh weather conditions and maintain a warm temperature, farmers typically keep their oyster cages closer to land. Kane said that the ideal temperature to grow oysters is between 65 and 72 degrees.
“Just a few degrees makes a lot of difference with the rate they grow and the way certain currents run…I saw some that were 70 to 72 degrees this summer on the right tide cycle,” he said. Generally, temperatures drop the farther people get away from shore into the bay.
“You also can’t have cages out in the middle of the water getting beat up,” he continued.
This is why Kane chose to plant his oysters in a well-protected cove in Western Bay, just east of Penobscot Bay.
“The water seems a little warmer, which makes it a good spot for growing, but the problem is it’s like a 3.5- to 4-mile boat ride to the nearest landing for my sight,” he said. Which for Kane is not bad, but if inclement weather occurred, he would likely have to go fix something.
Because oysters grow faster in warm water, growing them near the surface has become more of a popular practice. Farm owners with surface cages have to go out often to flip their floating systems and pressure-wash the oysters. As a bottom-culture and surface-culture farmer, Kane said his operation would be difficult during a big storm. “It’s already a little breezy, which is kind of a pain, but otherwise when you get there it’s great.”
As of now, Kane hasn’t lost many oysters. “I just got lucky with it. When most people start out, they have something that happens like a big storm that takes them, or their farms are just too shallow that make it easy for ice to come in the right way and clear the whole thing,” he said. Though he has yet to notice a difference in growth with the oysters he placed on the bottom, the ones on the water’s surface have been growing at a steady rate.
“So far, it’s hard to say that everything went right because I might find out next year that the oysters didn’t grow properly. Not all the oysters you grow are great; not all are oysters you can sell,” said Kane.
For Kane, oyster farming is a business venture.
“It takes about three years to grow a decent oyster… I will probably get an LLC of some sort when I start selling oysters, which will probably be the year after next,” he said.
Kane would eventually like to start a big farm but wants to gain more experience.
“The application fee for a big oyster farm is $1,000 and people need to have quite a bit of money in a bond in case some sort of issue comes up… there’s lawyers, and hearings upon hearings.”
So far, Kane has enjoyed the trial-and-error process.
“I would like to get my stride with the LPAs for now and then maybe step up to the experimental lease in a couple years, which is much more difficult than the LPA, but not as difficult as the big lease,” he said.