BRUNSWICK — It’s a calm, bright day, and Phil Gray is tending oysters growing in mesh crates that float in a line east of Bombazine Island in the New Meadows River.
One by one, he flips the cages over, exposing algae and other build-up to the disinfecting effect of the sun and open air.
Gray planted 6,000 American oysters in July. By the end of next summer, he hopes the crop will be ready for harvest.
Until a few years ago, Gray harvested wild mussels, but the disappearance of the resource in Casco Bay – he went from collecting 2,000 pounds a week a few years ago to less than 100 pounds – made him rethink how to make a living on the water.
Gray, who is semi-retired, said his partial Social Security benefit is the only thing keeping him in the fishing business.
“I’m not making any money from it,” he said.
Now, he’s one of a handful of new farmers trying aquaculture – the cultivation or farming of shellfish – on the New Meadows, a channel that runs between Brunswick and Harpswell to the west and West Bath to the east.
A couple of well-established farms, including Winterpoint Oysters in West Bath, have etched out a statewide reputation for providing high-quality shellfish from the area. Otherwise, aquaculture has been slow to catch on, despite prime growing conditions.
But as environmental pressures from pollution, invasive species and warming waters mount, local fishermen like Gray are turning to aquaculture as a means of support.
“There’s a lot of uncertainly in commercial fishing in general,” said Dana Morse, a researcher at the University of Maine’s Sea Grant program.
“It’s natural to think that the people involved in those industries are looking for alternatives,” he continued, adding that grown products can provide an important counter-balance to wild-caught fish and help preserve Maine’s tradition of working waterfronts.
“What I would really look forward to is two healthy industries working side by side,” Morse said.
According to the Department of Marine Resources, at the beginning of 2014 there were only nine active aquaculture operations on the New Meadows, including two large, full-time farms.
But since the beginning of the year, DMR has issued 10 new licenses to six farmers, a boom that reflects the industry’s growth in Maine.
According to Sebastian Belle, director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, the amount of product produced by aquaculture in the state has grown an average of 6 to 8 percent annually for the last 15 years, creating a $100 million industry.
Despite stops and starts, the collective growth is impressive, Belle said.
“There’s not a lot of business sectors in the state that have had that kind of growth,” he said.
Despite fears that more aquaculture farms would lead to conflicts with other users, there have been very few problems, Belle added.
About 1,300 acres in Maine waters are being cultivated in big, full-time farms with 10-year, 100-acre leases. But most new farmers opt for the simpler Limited Purpose Aquaculture license, which only costs $50 and allows up to 400 square feet of shellfish cultivation.
Morse has an LPA with a couple of partners to start a small operation. Like many first-timers, he is starting out with oysters, mainly because the hearty mollusks fetch a high price and are fairly easy to grow.
Peter Francisco, another newcomer to aquaculture, started an oyster farm near his West Bath home this year.
Traveling for his work as a fundraising consultant was draining, he said, and he saw aquaculture as a way to stay closer to home.
Francisco has set up two LPAs and has also applied for an experimental lease. If the first year goes well, he said he’d like to expand his farm, possibly to a full-scale, standard lease.
So far, a strong farming network hasn’t sprung up in the New Meadows, but Francisco predicts it will develop.
“I think there’s more potential there than what is being realized at this point,” he said. “I’d like to help make that happen if I can.”
While many new aquaculturists are entrepreneurs like Francisco, industry boosters believe beleaguered fishermen and harvesters, with extensive experience and knowledge of water conditions, local geography, and equipment, are ideally positioned to move into growing shellfish.
But making that transition can be hard, Belle cautioned; he compared it to the change from a roaming hunter-gatherer to a sedentary farmer. Those who move over to aquaculture successfully, however, tend to do better, in the long run, than people from completely different backgrounds, Belle added.
Last year, MAA, in partnership with local and statewide groups, held an intensive aquaculture training session for lobstermen in Harpswell and the Gouldsboro village of Corea to teach farming and marketing techniques, he said. It is also working with harvesters in Brunswick and other Mid-Coast communities to generate interest in more training sessions.
Tim Johnson, another recent New Meadows farmer, didn’t need a training session to see the writing on the wall.
Johnson, a Brunswick clammer since 1982, said the sudden decline in the industry over the past two years encouraged him to move into aquaculture. He established an oyster operation a quarter mile from Gray’s.
“The resource just isn’t what it was,” he said, explaining his move off the clam flats.
If all goes well for his first small operation, he’ll consider shifting to full time, Johnson said. But he expects to wait at least three years before seeing a return on his investment.
The delayed payback, as well as the paperwork and regulation involved in setting up even a small farm, might be a turn-off for clammers accustomed to quick returns from harvesting, he noted.
“I think that’s a big part of it,” Johnson said. “You go a long time without seeing any revenue.”
Harvesters’ hesitancy to move into aquaculture is unfortunate, he said, because they already have skills and experience that would transfer well, especially into the lucrative oyster business.
There is a sense of urgency for people who want to get into growing, Johnson said: farm placement is highly regulated by DMR, and it might not be too long before people from communities outside the New Meadows discover its promise as an aquaculture hub.
For now, however, the burgeoning industry is still in its early, growth stage.
“Right now, it’s pretty wide open,” Johnson said. “It’s a huge opportunity.”
Phil Gray flips over a cage full of young oysters at his aquaculture site near Bombazine Island in the New Meadows River off Brunswick.
A bouy labeled “FARM” marks an aquaculture operation on the New Meadows River off Brunswick.
Phil Gray looks over a set of 10 cages where he’s growing oysters on the New Meadows River off Brunswick.