A Female Oyster Farmer in Maine

8/17/2013 7:00 AM
By Sharon Kitchens Maine Correspondent

BIDDEFORD, Maine — According to Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, farmed oysters account for 95 percent of the world’s total oyster consumption. Oysters filter water, keeping it clean, and during intense algae blooms, they can absorb excess phytoplankton, which keeps dissolved oxygen levels balanced for other marine organisms.

Oyster shells breakdown and help lower acid levels, and natural oyster beds can help slow erosion as well.

Because most oyster farms are well managed and habitat effects from these farms are minimal or beneficial, they have remained outside of the wild versus aquafarming debate.

For Abigail Carroll, who runs Nonesuch Oysters, that is a very good thing. Building on the state’s long-standing agricultural roots, Carroll is forging a successful career as an oyster farmer growing high-quality oysters in Scarborough and Biddeford, Maine.

Her farming career began in 2009 after returning home to Maine from Paris, France, where she had been working in finance and business consulting.

While home, she advanced money to a friend to start an oyster farm. Carroll dug in and began studying, spawning, nursing, and eventually shucking oysters on the farm.

She purchased larger juvenile oysters from another Maine farm, let them grow out a bit more, and sold them in 2010. She did very little volume initially, but was able to begin building a reputation for good tasting oysters and to find a market.

In 2012, Carroll started her own nursery. She consulted with aquaculturist Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm in Walpole, Maine, about how to build a “land based” upweller (nursery) as most are integrated into floating docks. Mook laid out the general requirements for an upweller — inflow, outflow, screen sizes, disease prevention — and Chris Betjemann, owner of Full Circle Design, designed it.

The farm’s Biddeford location offers ideal conditions for growing oysters.

“See how much flow, how green that water is,” Carroll said. “On our site it gets warm, because it is shallow at low tide.”

The site cools down in the winter, which is when oysters get plump after growing sideways all summer.

Nonesuch Oysters practices a “traditional, environmentally-safe” grow-out method, purchasing very small spat (young oysters), approximately 1.5 millimeters in size, and putting them into an upweller where the oysters are contained and fed by water pumped from the estuary. When the oysters get to be about 1/4 inches, they are taken to the farm’s grow-out site in floating bags where they stay until being harvested. As the farm grows, Carroll hopes to do more ground seeding.

“Our free-range oysters are particularly gorgeous,” she said.

The farm’s principal crop is the Crassostrea virginica (Eastern oyster), which is what most oyster farmers in the East raise. What makes everyone’s oysters different, according to Carroll, is the environment in which they are raised.

“We speak of merroir with the French root of mer or sea now, the way wine connoisseurs speak of terroir,” she said.

“Merroir” is a term popularized in Rowan Jacobsen’s book, “A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America.” In the book, Jacobsen interviewed Robert Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, who is believed to have first coined the term.

The farm also grows a small volume of European flat oysters.

“This was purely personal and it’s a small niche market,” she said.

These oysters, also known as “Belons,” are a newly native species of oyster that grow wild along the Maine coast but were introduced from France in the mid-20th century.

Now that Nonesuch Oysters is growing, Carroll has been able to hire two full-time staff and is running two boats. She hopes to increase to three staff and three boats in 2014. She said a lot of people burn out due to the challenging schedule and dirty, wet work. Because the Scarborough River does not freeze, she is able to farm in February and March, making working conditions even tougher.

Carroll said she gets a lot of women who take aquaculture classes at the University of New England who want to work for her in the summer to gain hands-on experience. She said experienced male fishermen, who already have the tools and experience on the water and are converting to oyster farming, have a leg up on these new female graduates. But she said she’s met part of the steep learning curve of oyster farming by finding supportive people in her community who could help her build hardware and fix equipment.

In return, she is doing her part to support them by getting involved with local initiatives that could benefit aquaculture outfits.

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