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September / October 2002 Cover

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Oyster Options

Photo by Linda Healy

Oyster Options
The University of Maine's Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension marine team helps the state's shellfish aquaculture industry

About the Photo: "Shellfish aquaculture fits with coastal communities. It continues the tradition of making a viable living from the sea in a way that can be compatible with other uses, and (it is) sustainable from an environmental point of view."
Dana Morse

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In the distant past, when Maine's waters were warmer than today, oysters thrived all along the coast. Yet even now with a cooler climate that has restricted oysters to a smaller area, Maine enjoys a good reputation for the shellfish.

A small cottage industry has grown up to serve consumers who appreciate the salty, sweet, slightly crunchy raw oysters plucked from the clean, cold waters of the Damariscotta River.

Seven oyster aquaculture companies now call the Damariscotta home. Many of their owners received training and developed new growing techniques as students at The University of Maine. And their influence on Maine's coastal economy is growing.

The industry produced more than $2 million (dock value) in shellfish for the market 2001.

Moreover, oyster aquaculture is taking root in other locations up and down the Maine coast as a result of the state's experimental aquaculture lease program. Fledgling efforts are under way from Kittery to Washington County. Ten full-time and 25 part-time oyster aquaculture businesses are now in the state, according to Mike Hastings of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center.

"Shellfish aquaculture fits with coastal communities," says Dana Morse, a member of UMaine's Sea Grant and Cooperative Extension marine team. "It continues the tradition of making a viable living from the sea in a way that can be compatible with other uses, and (it is) sustainable from an environmental point of view. This industry also taps a lot of traditional skills and knowledge on the waterfront."

Based at the Ira C. Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, Morse is one of six marine Extension team members coastwide. Sponsored by the Maine Sea Grant College Program and UMaine Cooperative Extension, they provide technical assistance to industry, coordinate environmental monitoring efforts, and foster research on fisheries and coastal ecosystems. Among other tasks, Morse serves the oyster aquaculture industry by promoting research, answering questions and facilitating public meetings.

"Wherever possible, we rely on scientifically credible information, and we almost always act as a bridge between the industry, researchers and the public, whether the need is technical or otherwise," says Morse. "For example, we bring researchers and industry together to work on problems of common interest, such as juvenile oyster disease or on upweller development. We also transfer information from outside the region to the local industry members."

Morse's projects include efforts to perfect the design of a device known as a tidal upweller, which speeds the growth of young oysters. He also works to understand the causes of juvenile oyster disease, which can kill up to 90 percent of a farmer's young stock, effectively eliminating production for that year.

Morse and his colleagues host public meetings to discuss pending aquaculture lease applications. While oyster aquaculture facilities are minimally visible in the water, they do occupy areas that traditionally have been used by the public for boating and other purposes.

Not surprisingly, applications for new oyster leases can stimulate considerable debate in coastal communities. The meetings inform people of proposed aquaculture sites and stimulate dialogue.

"Industries we think of as traditional are always in some sort of change, and shellfish aquaculture, while a newer one than many, is another step in that change. On the whole, shellfish aquaculture is a good option for a marine-based livelihood, in a time when those options are growing fewer," Morse says.

by Nick Houtman
September-October, 2002

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