Today, oyster farms in Maine extend along the coast from York County, up through the eastern regions of Washington County, where the prized bivalve has become a major player in America’s oyster industry. Yet, the harvesting of oysters is nothing new in Maine as thousands of years ago Native peoples collected tons of the shellfish along the coast, leaving middens of empty shells that still can be found today along the ocean shore.
Back in the 1970s, marine scientists and young entrepreneurial watermen began experimenting with new technology to reignite heritage oyster farming. Applying new techniques using rafts, the first oyster farms were established along the Damariscotta River where today the names Mook Sea Farms, Pemaquid Oyster Co. and Glidden Point Oyster Farms remain the leaders in the Maine oyster industry. Maine cold-water oysters are sought after by gourmands nationwide for their clean, refreshing flavor. Restaurants, seafood shops and other retail outfits in Maine offer the bivalves on their menus and fish counters.
Over $10 million of oysters were sold in 2019 when over a hundred farms produced more than 12 million oysters. Within the state of Maine much investment has been made by state agencies, colleges, universities and nonprofits to aid in building the oyster industry into what it is today. Over the past 10 years, with support including licensing and innovation from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, aquaculture research with the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine and the Maine Aquaculture Association, oyster harvesters have increased to over 160 operations. Many of these oyster businesses are independent operators who head out on their skiffs to quiet coves from late April through November to manage and harvest their stocks. The oysters are then sold to seafood distributors, seafood shops and restaurants where the shellfish is consumed by oyster lovers within days to maintain freshness. The COVID pandemic has had a negative impact on many areas of state of Maine government, including the Department of Marine Resources. With considerable budget and staff cutbacks the licensing review process for dozens of small, independent oyster farmers has come to a screeching halt. Substantial investments, which are primarily self-funded, have been made in these operations where oyster stocks are currently maturing and need to be harvested the spring of 2021.
Without a completed licensing process conducted by the DMR these harvesters are currently put in jeopardy because the aquaculture wing of the Department of Marine Resources does not have the financial resources to staff hearings, scoping sessions and general application review. This leaves these independent oyster harvesters with an uncertain future, which has the makings of potential economic disaster for those who have made a noticeable investment in Maine and are primarily younger people who want to live, work and thrive in Maine.
As a restaurant operator in Hancock, our purchasing practices include provisioning our larder with many Maine-made, farmed and ocean harvested foods. Our customers have come to expect and enjoy the bounty of Maine oysters that we offer freshly shucked, shucked to order, oftentimes shucked by a local oyster harvester himself and herself where our guests have an opportunity to “meet the maker,” which adds another dimension to our guests’ dining experience. The restaurant industry has taken a big hit during the COVID pandemic. Many of us have had to rethink our business models. Once we move beyond the current public health crisis, my restaurant and many others in Maine have intentions to support local fisheries by offering freshly shucked Maine oysters. However, with the Department of Marine Resources currently experiencing a budget standstill with the aquaculture wing of the agency, the possibility that my restaurant will not be able to purchase fresh, Maine oysters in the summer of 2021 because our local harvesters cannot complete their licensing process is unacceptable. And it should be unacceptable to the Maine Department of Revenue as reduced sales for my restaurant means less sales tax collected from food sales.
Let’s get the Maine Department of Marine Resources back in gear where scoping sessions, public hearings and general processing for independent, small oyster harvesters gets back on track. Spring is not far away.