Maine is synonymous with lobster, but we also produce some of the best oysters (Crassostrea virginica, the Eastern oyster) in the world. In warmer areas oysters can be grown from egg to adult in a year, but in Maine they take three or more years to reach a harvestable size. The extra growing time results superior flavor and texture, firmer meat and a thicker shell. The nexus of the Maine oyster industry is the Damariscotta River, a little short of the halfway point up the coast from the NH border and about 100 miles from SeaCat’s Rest. Maine oysters are expensive but worth it, and people around the country are starting to find out. The Damariscotta River has hosted oysters for thousands of years as revealed by huge 2000 year old midden piles of shells left by Native Americans.
Growing oysters, unlike clams, is not just a process of harvesting a wild creature. The production of our prized bivalves starts with site selection. Oysters are endemic to brackish water, the estuaries of rivers where ocean waters mix with fresh. The fresh water must be clean. Polluted water would not only produce unhealthy oysters, they would taste bad as well. So like a fine wine growing region, specific rivers and even parts of rivers, produce the best oysters. Therefore they must be farmed intensively. Maine has 32 oyster farms. Relying on naturally occurring oysters in prime areas would be like harvesting wild grapes for wine.
The process of farming oysters starts in the hatchery in winter. Mature oysters are induced to produce egg and sperm by manipulating food and water temperature while they lie on trays in tanks . Fertilized eggs are at first free swimming but eventually attach to tiny crushed shells fragment provided by the hatchery. During this growth phase they consume huge amounts of algae, which must be provided in the hatchery. Eventually they achieve “grow out” where they can be transferred to mesh bags out in the river. Here their diet changes to a natural one, and they continue to grow until their size requires larger accommodations.
Some growers keep their oysters in floating crates until they’re ready to harvest, but others transfer their investments to river bottom for a while. This requires either hand harvesting with scuba gear, or a mechanical dredge. Either way, the reward is a superior product, commanding a premium price in New York restaurants. Fortunately, visitors to Maine have the opportunity to sample Maine oysters near the source at a local price. Every September the village of Damariscotta hosts an Oyster festival. Admission is free and the oysters are plentiful; 15,000 were served in 2012.
The Maine oyster industry is small compared to the lobster industry. Currently oyster sales amount to $8 or $9 million dollars per year while lobster sales total $340 million. Although Maine oysters are often out-shined by lobsters, the product quality is just as good and they will likely grow in importance in the years to come. Recent threats from disease and the possibility of hurricane damage still makes oyster farming a gamble, but Maine’s cold winters assure that our oysters attain a sweetness not present in fast-grown southern varieties. If you can afford a few Maine oysters at $1.09 each (supermarket price, 10/29/12) you will be able to enjoy a taste of the briny-sweetness of Maine.