Oyster farm adds to Brunswick aquaculture growth

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BRUNSWICK — As ocean temperatures and sea-floor predators rise along the coast of Maine, so has an interest in aquaculture.

For Brunswick, the trend has taken hold in an increasing number of shellfish farms sprinkled along the town’s 60 miles of shoreline, as harvesters look for secure streams of revenue within an increasingly changing ocean ecosystem.

Most recently, Nice Oyster Co., off Woodward Point, is expanding from 800 square feet to 2.7 acres after recently securing a three-year experimental lease from the Department of Marine Resources – the first of its kind in Brunswick.

The lease signals local growth within a burgeoning statewide industry and comes on the heels of the town’s July approval of a state-sanctioned lease for its first intertidal clam farm.

“(Aquaculture) gives people the opportunity to keep Maine’s waterfront working,” Harbormaster Dan Devereaux said Sept. 8. Devereaux has played a key role in promoting the rising number of Brunswick farms in the last three to five years.

Those years have allowed enough time for harvesters to get their feet wet and prepared to “jump into a bigger process” and expand their business, he said – harvesters like Nice Oyster Co.’s Dana Morse and John Swenson.

Devereaux described the significance of their lease as less to do with its novelty – there are others in the New Meadows watershed, although not in Brunswick – and more a signal of an increased level of the industry’s comfort and establishment in town waters.

The rest of the town’s shellfish farmers – there are about a dozen – hold Limited Purpose Aquaculture licenses, which authorizes them to farm up to 400 square feet, Devereaux said.

“Now you’re starting to see those people” expand, he said.

“They went their three years (with an LPA), they’ve watched them grow, they’ve done their homework,” he continued, describing the organic growth. “Now we better apply for a standard (or experimental) lease.”

Morse said he opted for an experimental lease – which can cover up to 4 acres and lasts for up to three years – because his company is still findings its footing.

With more acreage, he and his partner will explore new ways – and refine old ones – of growing American and European oysters.

Right now, the company, which is embarking on its fourth growing season, nurtures only American oysters from seed in a combination of floating shellfish bags and cages.

Under the new lease, Morse said he will look into seeding the oysters in the mud, which reduces labor and equipment costs.

It also introduces the risk of predators, he said. While hard-shelled oysters are more resilient than soft-shell clams, wild stocks of that species have been devastated in recent years by insurgent green crabs and milky ribbon worms that now call the mud their home.

“Putting oysters on the bottom is a bit of a calculated risk,” he said, but in the spirit of the experimental nature of the many aquaculture farms and wild harvest techniques active in the changing Maine waters.

The local traction reflects a statewide trend.

Nice Oyster joins approximately 125 active leases listed on the DMR website’s interactive map, although many are held by the same company, and not all raise shellfish.

Devereaux’s own farm, operating under several LPAs as the Mere Point Co., might be the next to join that list: a public scoping session, or hearing, was held for his lease application on Tuesday.

Students are getting involved, too.

The Town Council is expected to take action on changes to the town’s shellfish ordinance Sept. 18 in response to a growing number of student licenses.

The changes would increase the total amount and number of days the town’s 15 student license-holders can harvest; many of them were introduced to picking clams through Brunswick High School’s “outdoor classroom,” introduced last year.

To Devereaux, all the activity benefits both harvester revenues and the environment. Oysters also filter the waters where they grow, so the more farms, the better, he said. They behave like “a big pool filter” in the ocean, compensating for the loss in wild stocks decimated by new predators.

That loss has put the ocean at a higher risk of algal blooms that blanket the water, Devereaux explained, killing species and impeding submerged aquatic vegetation from growing.

The farms might generate spawn that will spread into wild areas, increasing that stock, which still constitutes the overwhelming majority of revenue for shellfish harvesters.

Still, he said, all signs suggest that aquaculture “is really the wave of the future.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Dana Morse, of Brunswick-based Nice Oyster Co., harvests oysters off Woodward Point in the New Meadows River earlier this summer. Nice Oyster recently acquired the town’s first aquaculture lease to expand its farmed acreage.

Edited 9/14 to correct spelling of John Swenson’s name.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.