Oysters aren't that smart, and that's good. Since Maine has no wild source of seed, it has to be produced in the lab. Chris Davis, a partner in the Maine-based Pemaquid Oyster Co., explains they trick oysters into spawning early by taking them out of the water around this time of year and putting them in warmer water.
There's further manipulating of the young. Once the larvae are ready to move from a swimming state to settle on the bottom, they cement themselves onto ground-up oyster shells the exact size of the larvae. The shells are ground up that small so that only one larva will fit on each one, producing single-oyster reefs instead of the big clumps you see in the wild. This way they grow a perfect looking shell that can be beautifully served as a half-shell on ice in the high-end restaurants for which these oysters are intended.
Davis spoke on behalf of the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center, during a session on aquaculture for fishermen at the Maine Fishermen's Forum last weekend in Rockport. Some have already made the transition to aquaculture: National Fisherman has profiled people like waterman Johnny Shockley, a third-generation fisherman who grows oysters in Chesapeake Bay and sells them through his company Hooper Island Aquaculture in Fishing Creek, Md.
On the plus side, aquaculture can help sustain jobs on the water and be a way to commercially harvest native species whose populations are diminished in the wild. I learned about an interesting project at the forum when Chris Warner talked about his Heal Eddy soft-shell clam restoration project in Georgetown, Maine.
Maine's clams have been hit hard by invasive green crabs. Warner is tackling the problem by leasing from the town flats that were already sub-populated, planting them with soft-shell clam seeds and then covering those flats with nets to protect the clams from crabs. Since the project is in part a research project, he hasn't maximized his 2.3 acres but is testing out different net mesh sizes and what will happen in open areas between nets. It takes about three years for the clams to grow out, and Warner expects to have exclusive rights to that harvest.
And there's the problem. Many local harvesters don't like the idea of part of the flats becoming privatized, even though those flats were depleted before Warner seeded them. His project faces extinction this November if the town doesn't grant an extension, which he might not get because of public opposition. He says this cultural problem is a bigger problem than the technical challenge of fighting off green crabs.
But maybe projects like this are the only way to fight those invasive predators? Warner would like to see others follow his lead. In Maine you can lease up to 25 percent of the flats. He said 2 acres could support 120 nets, and he estimates a profit of $680 per net.
It's also risky, depends on the market and requires an initial investment of labor and money and then a further investment in time, checking on the nets every week. It also requires waiting about three years for that first harvest. But Warner says he imagines if you maximized 2 acres you could make the equivalent of 12 months in three months (that's also an estimate, of course).
Such an undertaking, said Warner, requires "fire in the belly, skin the in the game" and the acceptance of a delayed reward. Aquaculture is a whole different mentality from fishing.
"When you transition to farming you are now the manager of a small plot on the ocean in which you make an investment. You have to think about how to take care of the animals," said Dick Clime of Coastal Enterprises, who spoke about the business aspects of aquaculture at the forum.
But aquaculture also looks like a big part of the future of working on the water. Right now the U.S. imports 95 percent of its seafood. But if we were to maximize all U.S. wild fisheries, we'd only be able to meet demand for four months, according to Sebastian Belle of the Maine Aquaculture Association. Isn't local aquaculture a better choice than imported you-know-what?
What do you think about aquaculture efforts in your area? Is it something you're interested in? Can more be done to help fishermen make that transition if they want to? Or, like the clammers in Georgetown, do you see it as a threat to life on the open ocean range?