SCARBOROUGH — Two shellfish harvesters now await the state’s decision after submitting lease applications for experimental farms to grow American oysters in the Nonesuch and Spurwink rivers.
Matt Hassler and Robert Willette submitted applications to the state in November. Hassler said it could be a few weeks to a few months before they know whether the lease is approved.
The deadline for the public to submit comments on the applications to the Department of Marine Resources is Jan. 23, 2018. The applications were deemed complete by the state earlier this month.
The applicants are seeking a three-year lease to determine whether the sites are viable for cultivating oysters, which will allow the pair to decide whether to eventually apply for a 10-year lease to commercially grow oysters.
Willette has lived in Scarborough for 19 years and has been licensed as a shellfish harvester in town for the past 21 years. He is a fourth-generation harvester, and a member of the town’s Shellfish Conservation Commission and the Coastal Waters and Harbors Advisory Committee.
Hassler grew up in Scarborough and recently graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in civil engineering. He is also a commercial clammer and has held his license for five years. He said the future of Maine shellfish lies in aquaculture, and in his experience harvesting clams in the traditional way, he sees predators such as ribbon milky worms and green crabs, who feed on soft-shell clams, weakening the fishery.
Hassler said aquaculture methods allow farmers to protect the seed stock because they are floating in the water in trays, not submerged in the mudflats, which leaves them susceptible to predation.
The Spurwink River site is about 2.7 acres in size and lies between Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, near Higgins Beach. The Nonesuch River site is less than 4 acres in size, Hassler said.
The reason for applying for two locations comes down to the depth of the rivers, Hassler said. The Spurwink River is shallow, and the operation cannot continue in the winter months when the river freezes. The Nonesuch River is deeper and allows for more flexibility in the operation during the winter season.
Willette and Hassler will employ two methods to grow oysters. One uses mesh oyster bags, and the other uses floating cages, which keep the oysters suspended beneath the water. The application states the pair will grow 600,000 oysters, with the seed oysters coming from Mook’s Seafarm in Walpole.
With two other oyster-growing operations already in place in the Spurwink River, there has been some concern about traditional use of the river being restricted.
Cape Elizabeth resident and former waterfowl hunter George Watson said he was concerned hunters who have used the area for generations may no longer be able to use the site. He wanted to make residents aware there are other uses for the river, although Watson added he is not opposed to the project.
Hassler said there will be at least a 10-foot navigable path for boats at low tide, and during high tide boat traffic should not affect the operation, since only a small portion of the river would be taken up by the project. He said no one –including those who now access the body of water – would be restricted from their usual activities.
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, Hassler said. Canoers, kayakers and paddle-boarders will also be able to continue with recreational activities.
Willette said in a previous interview 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. The pair plan on selling their oysters to Harpswell-based Moody’s Seafood.
There are 25 pending aquaculture lease applications statewide, including Willette and Hassler’s, according to the Department of Marine Resource’s website.
Proposed oyster farm locations in the Nonesuch, left, and Spurwink rivers.