SWAN’S ISLAND — When longtime fisherman Jason Joyce decided to start Swan’s Island Oyster Farm two years ago, he knew there was risk involved, but there has been help along the way.
With the guidance of Island Institute’s Aquaculture Business Development (ABD) program, Joyce and his cousin, Josh Joyce, decided to diversify their income by creating another potential revenue stream through oyster farming. Both men have worked on the water for the last three decades as fishermen and are familiar with the ebb and flow of the ocean economy.
“We’re targeting people in coastal communities,” said Peter Piconi, program director for the Island Institute. “We’re seeing 50 applications a year. We can only accept about 25 participants each year …. The fact that we walk through it with them for a year is what makes it such a good program.”
In addition to oysters, the ABD program also focuses on cultivating and harvesting seaweed, mussels and scallops.
“Josh and I are both eighth-generation islanders and commercial fishermen with zero experience in aquaculture,” said Joyce in a press statement. “The ABD program gave us the chance to consider the benefits while also weighing the costs of starting an oyster farm of our own.”
It is too soon to tell if Swan’s Island Oyster Farm will be lucrative. The last two years have been all about investing in the new business. It may be another couple of years before Jason Joyce realizes a return on his investment and he compares the business’s current process to a dripping faucet.
“(A) little here and a little there actually adds up to a decent amount each year,” he said. “The time invested is substantial, but we are used to working long hours with no pay; that’s part of the fishing business.”
Joyce lists supplies such as seed stock, juvenile oysters that take three years to grow to marketable size, bags for the new oysters, which he purchases 100 at a time, lines, anchors, buoys and the state’s licensing program application as part of the business’s necessary investment.
“The biggest deterrent, in my opinion, is the paperwork associated with the LPAs and/or lease,” said Joyce in an email. “It’s not simple and takes years off your life trying to fill things out correctly.”
He is referring to the Limited-Purpose Aquaculture licensing program through which applicants obtain a one-year license to rear specific species using particular gear types on a site that covers no more than 400 square feet, according to the Department of Marine Resources website.
Each year, until Swan’s Island Oyster Farm determines a permanent location, it will have to apply for the one-year license.
Joyce credits the ABD program for motivating him and Josh to continue working at developing their farm.
“Island Institute, as well as the other oyster farmers we have collaborated with, have been a huge asset as we continue to move forward,” he said. “We have recommended the Island Institute’s program and program director, Peter, to friends on and off (Swan’s) island.”
Island Institute is accepting applications for the next round of the ABD program. In its first three years, there have been 75 participants with a total of 20 starting businesses with crops in the water. The Island Institute estimates the contribution to Maine’s economy because of these businesses is over $3.1 million. By 2020, Island Institute estimates that the contribution of an expected 60 small aquaculture operations could grow to $36 million.
This year’s cohort of trainees will kick off with all-group and individual meetings in April, followed by a two- to three-day aquaculture boot camp where they will receive hands-on training at sea farms in early May.
Throughout the summer, participants will receive one-on-one assistance from Island Institute staff as they start their businesses, and the year will round out with several more in-person meetings in the late fall and winter in order to cover essential topics.
“We took the plunge two years ago and started Swan’s Island Oyster Farm,” Joyce said. “We’ll be putting our oysters on the market this spring, and we couldn’t have done it without (the Island Institute’s) help.”
Once their oysters are ready for harvest, the Joyces will rely on relationships they’ve built as fishermen to sell their new product. Oysters from Swan’s Island Oyster Farm are expected to go as far south as Portland and as close as Trenton and locations on the island in the summer.
“Our relationships with these markets are longstanding relationships we have developed in the lobster and seafood industry over the last 30 years,” said Jason Joyce in an email. “We take pride in all of the products we have sold over the years.”
Swan’s Island Oyster Farm’s return on investment is dependent on overwintering losses and normal risks associated with raising oysters, according to Jason Joyce. He adds that he would be tickled if the business breaks even once they start selling product.
“There is a risk in everything, but as in life, nothing ventured nothing gained,” Joyce said. “We are having a good time and learning much so that hopefully we can help the people coming behind us here on the island who try (farming) oysters as well. We help others when and where we can.”