Oysters are placed in black plastic ADPI bags before they are dropped in the waters of Western Bay to grow. MATT GERALD PHOTO

Oyster farming plan enjoys smooth sailing

BAR HARBOR — Shellfish grower Matt Gerald’s plan to grow more than 1.5 million oysters south of Old House Cove in Western Bay drew little comment at a Department of Marine Resources scoping session held earlier this month in Bar Harbor.

In the aquaculture business for four years, Gerald became an oyster farmer by accident.

Five or six years ago, shellfish farmer Joe Porada spilled some juvenile oysters into the water off the Mount Desert Island shore. A few years later, Porada found some of the oysters and noticed that they were growing well. When Gerald heard about it, he decided to jump into the water with oyster farming.

He first relied on small, short-term limited-purpose aquaculture licenses, and then on an experimental lease, which is easier to obtain than a standard aquaculture lease, but is limited to four acres and expires after three years.

On Feb. 6, Gerald and DMR held a scoping session at the Bar Harbor Town Hall, a public meeting required before Gerald can apply for a standard lease. The lease would have a term of 20 years and would allow him to spread his operation over a larger area.

No one at the scoping session voiced any concerns to Gerald’s proposal.

Gerald said his project is facing little opposition because he spoke with all his neighbors before moving forward and explained that the project would mostly be out of sight, since his oysters would be grown on the sea floor. What creates conflict between property owners and sea farmers, he said, are “top-grow” operations that use cages on the water’s surface and can look industrial.

“People pay a lot of taxes to live on the ocean, and they feel like they own the view. But they don’t really own the view. The view is commonwealth,” Gerald said.

Gerald has been a land farmer since 1984, but said he’s always been interested in working waterfronts.

“It’s part of our history and part of our culture, but it’s been suffering,” he said.

He’s on the Bar Harbor Marine Resources Committee and allows other shellfish growers to access the water through his property, “to help out this enterprise.”

He said he got involved with growing oysters in particular “because they’ve become part of the palette here.”

Gerald’s operation would be located on a 3.36-acre site in Blue Hill Bay, south of Old House Cove. He intends to apply to grow up to 1.5 million American oysters at any given time, aged 1 to 4 years, distributed on the bottom in as many as 5,000 black plastic mesh ADPI bags. The bags measure 36 by 16 by 4 inches.

Gerald will purchase juvenile oysters, or spat, from one of the three licensed hatcheries in Maine. The variety he buys was developed by Rutgers University to resist the diseases affecting oysters that have appeared along the coast in recent years, he said.

“Disease resistance is becoming more and more important because the Gulf of Maine is warming up, and there are more diseases coming up the coast from down south,” Gerald said.

The oyster spat Gerald buys also are relatively big, around one-third of an inch across. Buying smaller spat is cheaper, he said, but they also have a higher chance of mortality and require more nurturing before they’re dropped in the water, 1,000 to a bag.

By the time they reach market size, Gerald and his crew have reduced that number to about 100 per bag. Growing them on the bottom takes four to five years, which is almost twice as long as a “top grow” operation, but Gerald says they taste better and have a thicker shell.

Western Bay, where Gerald grows his oysters, is relatively shallow so the bags have to be anchored in place to prevent any losses from winter ice and storms. Aside from winter weather hazards, there is the challenge of protecting the oysters from underwater predators, predominantly starfish, which force their stomachs into the oysters and digest them.

“So far, our loss has been under 15 percent, so we don’t worry about it, because there’s always mortality,” Gerald said.

Flora Drury, a marine scientist with the aquaculture staff at DMR, laid out the next steps of the standard lease application process at the scoping session. Once Gerald files his application, it will be reviewed by the DMR, which will then conduct a site visit and prepare a site report and schedule a formal public hearing.

If everything goes by smoothly, Drury said, Gerald’s proposal could be approved as early as this fall.

Henriette Chacar

Henriette Chacar

Former Islander reporter Henriette Chacar covered the towns of Southwest Harbor and Tremont.
Henriette Chacar

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