Residents eye Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth for oyster farms

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SCARBOROUGH — Two shellfish harvesters want to be the first residents to operate commercial oyster farms in town.

Two other oyster farms already exist, but are not operated by Scarborough residents.

Matthew Hassler and Robert Willette want to cultivate and grow oysters in the Nonesuch and Spurwink rivers.

The business partners applied for a 10-year aquaculture license Oct. 24 to harvest oysters in two locations in the Nonesuch River. They held a scoping session Oct. 23 at the Municipal building, as required by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

They will hold a second scoping session Nov. 9 at 6 p.m. at the Cape Elizabeth Town Hall, 620 Ocean House Road. After that session, they can apply for a lease to farm oysters in the Spurwink River.

One site totals just under 2 acres in the Nonesuch River, near Nonesuch Point. Residents often call it the Scarborough River, but is on DMR maps as the Nonesuch River.

The second Nonesuch River site is about 1.3 acres on the back side of what is known as Mel’s Bar.

Both Nonesuch sites are in the marsh.

Nonesuch Oysters and Pine Point Oysters already operate in the river.

The Spurwink River site is more than 2.7 acres and lies between Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, near Higgins Beach.

“We would have loved to grab a 10-acre square area but there are really none,” Hassler said.

Hassler, 22, has been a licensed shellfish harvester for the past five years. He recently graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in civil engineering and is attending UMaine graduate school studying structural engineering.

Willette, 35, has lived in Scarborough for 19 years and has been licensed as a shellfish harvester in the town for the past 21 years. He is a fourth-generation shellfish harvester, and a member of the town’s Shellfish Conservation Commission and the Coastal Waters and Harbors Advisory Committee.

During the scoping session, Willette told attendees that all three sites are subtidal, so the oysters would remain under the water.

The two shellfish harvesters said they would employ two different methods to farm the oysters. The first uses mesh oyster bags, and the second uses floating cages, which keep the oysters suspended beneath the water. Hassler said each bag can hold about 300 oysters.

Willette said they will have to take the oysters out during the winter and the two have constructed dry storage refrigeration units to store the oysters. They will access the sites by boat from the ocean.

“You have to be very careful with (oysters) or you can kill them,” Willette said. “We are committed to taking care of them.”

The two said boat traffic will still be able to travel around the oyster operation, and the oysters will be in a section of the river that is not used by larger boats. Canoers, kayakers and paddle-boarders will also be able to continue with recreation activities.

“We are not aiming to block up the river,” Hassler said.

“We are going to work with everyone to get kayaks and canoes to go through,” Willette added.

The pair said they began the process in February in discussions with the harbormaster, and started visiting sites in April.

Jon Lewis, director of the aquaculture division at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said it could take six months to a year to get the lease approved.

Willette said he has been told it could take two to three years to grow the oysters to harvest size from seed, depending on how large they want the oysters to grow.

In an interview after the meeting, Willette said concerns about the clam industry played a role in the decision to harvest oysters.

He said there seem to be fewer clams each year, in part due to increasing numbers of predators and environmental factors. Milky river worms can devastate a flat during the winter, he noted, while green crabs prey on clams, and ocean acidification and the warming of the oceans threaten their survival.

“The reason for moving towards oysters,” Hassler said, “is they are more under our control.”

Willette and Hassler will sell the oysters to a Harpswell plant that can provide a “top-tier” product that is certified free of bacteria and has a longer shelf life.

The harvesting and processing method, Willette said, will eliminate some of the environmental uncertainty and “beats bending over and digging clams all day.”

 Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext .106 or Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

Proposed oyster farm locations in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.HasslerWillette