PORTLAND — It’s no secret that shellfish aquaculture is expanding rapidly in Maine with the farming of oysters leading the charge.
In 2013, according to the Department of Marine Resources, oyster landings in Maine totaled some 966,167 pounds, virtually all of it farmed product, worth about $2.4 million. Last year, Maine producers landed some 2.7 million pounds of the bivalves that devotees consider a delicacy. The value of those landings — again virtually all from oyster farms — topped $6.4 million.
That put oysters among the state’s 10 most valuable fisheries, far behind lobsters, herring, elvers and scallops, the four most valuable, but about on a par with the fishery for green sea urchins.
Last Saturday, the Maine Oysterfest brought hundreds of oyster enthusiasts and a dozen Maine oyster farmers together for the penultimate event of Portland’s six-day Harvest on the Harbor festival for foodies.
Gathering under a tent at Portland Yacht Services on the Fore River, the afternoon festivities combined the opportunity to hear some good blues, sip a bit of single malt scotch or wine and sample oysters from growers mostly located on the Midcoast or in Casco Bay who sell, primarily, through The Maine Oyster Co.
Like good wines, the oysters had their own “terroir,” with the product from each of the dozen farms tasting of the waters in which they were grown.
While each farm site produced an oyster with its own unique flavor profile, all of the oysters shared one common, non-biological similarity: they were all grown by producers working tiny Limited Purpose Aquaculture sites permitted by the Department of Marine Resources rather than on sites leased from the state under the formal DMR aquaculture lease structure.
LPAs and standard aquaculture leases differ significantly. The maximum size for a 20-year aquaculture lease is 100 acres and the leasing process is subject to a formal public review.
The LPA is granted for a renewable term of one year and for a maximum area of 400 square feet. No one may hold more than four LPAs.
According to Flora Drury, a scientist at DMR, as of Monday there were 542 active LPAs in Maine waters from the New Hampshire border to Cobscook Bay, held by 169 individuals and one municipal marine resources committee.
Of the active LPAs, 401 are approved to grow American oysters. That totals an area of just 160,400 square feet, about 3.7 acres in all. By contrast, DMR has issued 84 standard leases primarily for farming oysters. A very few of those leases are relatively large but only three exceed 20 acres — two of them on Blue Hill Bay in Trenton — and most are smaller than five acres. Many cover less than an acre in all.
All of the growers who served up their oysters on Saturday are running their operations from LPAs including: Basket Island, Cape Small and Mere Point on Casco Bay; Dingley Cove, Eiders Cove, Iron Island and Merritt Island on the New Meadows River; Black Point and Moondancer in the Damariscotta River, home to many of the largest, best known oyster farms in the state; Nonesuch from the Scarborough River; and Snow Islands raised by and to support the Quahog Bay Conservancy in Harpswell.
The sole representative from eastern Maine was Mount Desert Island oysters grown along the shore of MDI and finished off in Goose Cove.
All of those growers market through The Maine Oyster Co. based in Phippsburg, but most small growers sell their product into a market of local restaurants and stores. The Maine Oyster Co. recently opened a restaurant in downtown Portland.
The lack of Downeast representation is somewhat deceptive. According to DMR, there are 55 active oyster LPAs in Hancock County with the largest number, 13, concentrated on Swan’s Island. Few of the oysters raised on Downeast LPAs are sold very far from the harbor’s edge.
While buying oysters raised by a couple of part-time farmers on an LPA may offer a sense of supporting an artisanal fishery, there is sometimes more to LPA farming than meets they eye.
Next month, DMR will hold a public hearing on a contentious request by Mere Point Oyster Co. for a 10-year standard aquaculture lease on 40 acres in Brunswick. The company has argued that the lease would merely consolidate its existing LPA operations into one site but, according to the application filed with DMR, the lease would supplant about a dozen LPAs that cover, in all, about .10 acres in Maquoit Bay in Brunswick.