BAR HARBOR — Chris Kane’s small oyster farm in Western Bay is off to a successful start. A local lobster fisherman for the last 15 years, Kane was recently granted a limited purpose aquaculture license to try his hand at growing the tasty bivalve.
Farming oysters not only can help supply fresh products to meet market demand but can also help keep the waters and the surrounding environment clean. Oysters eat naturally occurring plankton and algae and an adult oyster can also filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day.
“Since people started farming oysters, I have heard that there are now wild growing populations of oysters, which is good,” said Kane.
Last year, Kane applied for a limited purpose aquaculture (LPA) license from the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to grow oysters. LPAs differ from a standard aquaculture lease in that their term is only for one year and the cultivation space is limited to up to 400 square feet. It didn’t take long for the DMR to approve Kane for a LPA license.
“You have to do the paperwork and you can’t just apply to put one anywhere,” said Kane, adding that “it took me a while to really pick a good site out.”
According to the DMR, only oyster seeds and stock coming directly from Maine’s hatcheries can be placed at LPA sites. The reason for this is to prevent cross-contamination among the different populations.
This past July, Kane purchased thirty-five thousand 9-13-millimeter baby oysters from a Maine hatchery to start his operation.
“My oysters were about the size of a dime when I got them, which is actually a pretty developed oyster. It already looks like an oyster.”
The smaller the oyster, the more sensitive it is to the water temperature and weather conditions.
“The 1-3-millimeter oysters from the hatchery are pretty fragile … if the water temperature is too hot or cold when you put them in there, or if you get weather while they’re still small, shaking around in their cages you’re going to lose them right off the bat because most of the cages all float on the surface,” Kane said.
The oysters Kane bought were bagged and transported inside a foam cooler. Kane then brought the oysters to his spot and put them in cages.
“Essentially, you have a six-bay cage,” he said. “The oysters in the meshed bags go in the floating cages, which provide a structure for them to grow.” When the oysters become larger next year, his cages will move up in size, but they are small for now.
“I have two leases because I wanted to try something different; a lease with cages on the bottom and a lease with cages on the surface,” Kane said.
He chose a well-protected cove in Western Bay, just east of Penobscot Bay.
“The water seems a little warmer, which makes it a good spot for growing, but the problem is it’s like a 3.5- to 4-mile boat ride to the nearest landing for my site,” he said. The distance isn’t too bad for Kane, but if inclement weather occurred, he would likely have to go out and fix something.
As of now, Kane hasn’t lost many oysters.
“I just got lucky with it,” he said. “When most people start out, they have something that happens like a big storm that takes them, or their farms are just too shallow that make it easy for ice to come in the right way and clear the whole thing.”
Though he has yet to notice a difference in growth with the oysters he placed on the bottom, the ones on the water’s surface have been growing at a steady rate.
“So far, it’s hard to say that everything went right because I might find out next year that the oysters didn’t grow properly,” Kane said. “Not all the oysters you grow are great; not all are oysters you can sell.”
For Kane, oyster farming is a business venture.
“It takes about three years to grow a decent oyster … I will probably get an LLC of some sort when I start selling oysters, which will probably be the year after next,” he said.
Kane would eventually like to start a big farm but wants to gain more experience. So far, he has enjoyed the trial-and-error process.
“I would like to get my stride with the LPAs for now and then maybe step up to the experimental lease in a couple years, which is much more difficult than the LPA, but not as difficult as the big lease,” he said.