By Leslie Harlow
Today, oyster farms in Maine extend along the coast from York County up through the eastern regions of Washington County, where the prized bivalve has become a major player in America’s oyster industry.
Back in the 1970s, marine scientists and entrepreneurial watermen began experimenting with new technology to reignite heritage oyster farming. Applying new techniques using rafts, the first oyster farms were established along the Damariscotta River where today the names Mook Sea Farms, Pemaquid Oysters Co. and Glidden Point Oyster Farms remain the leaders in the Maine oyster industry. Over $10 million of oysters were sold in 2019 when over a hundred farms produced more than 12 million oysters.
Within Maine, much investment has been made by state agencies, colleges, universities and nonprofits to aid in building the oyster industry. Over the past 10 years with support including licensing and innovation from the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), aquaculture research at University of Maine and the Maine Aquaculture Association, oyster harvesters have increased to over 160 operations. Many oyster businesses are independent operators who head out on their skiffs from late April through November to manage and harvest their stocks. The oysters are sold to seafood distributors, seafood shops and restaurants where the shellfish is consumed within days to maintain freshness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on many areas of Maine government, including the DMR. With budget and staff cutbacks, the licensing review process for dozens of small, independent oyster farmers has come to a halt. Substantial investments, which are primarily self-funded, have been made in these operations where oyster stocks are currently maturing and need to be harvested the spring of 2021. Without a completed licensing process conducted by the DMR, these harvesters are put in jeopardy because the aquaculture wing of the DMR does not have the financial resources to staff hearings, scoping sessions and application reviews. This leaves these independent harvesters with an uncertain future, which has the makings of economic disaster for those who have made an investment in Maine.
As a restaurant operator in Hancock, our purchasing practices include provisioning our larder with many Maine-made farmed and ocean harvested foods. Our customers have come to expect and enjoy the bounty of Maine oysters that we offer freshly shucked to order, oftentimes shucked by a local oyster harvester where our guests have an opportunity to “meet the maker,” which adds another dimension to our guests’ dining experience.
The restaurant industry has taken a big hit during the pandemic. Many of us have had to rethink our business models. Once we move beyond the current public health crisis, my restaurant, along with many others in Maine, have intentions to support local fisheries by offering freshly shucked Maine oysters. However, with the DMR currently experiencing a budget standstill with the aquaculture wing of the agency, the possibility that my restaurant will not be able to purchase Maine oysters this summer because our local harvesters cannot complete their licensing process is unacceptable.
Let’s get the DMR back in gear where scoping sessions, public hearings and general processing for independent, small oyster harvesters gets back on track. Spring is not far away.
Leslie Harlow is the owner of Ironbound Restaurant in Hancock.