With demand growing, oyster farmer seeks relaxed regulation to make winter sales easier

Posted Dec. 26, 2013, at 4:33 p.m.
Oyster growers Bill Mook (left) and Andy Stevenson flip floats containing oyster nets on the Damariscotta River, as John Mitchell looks on from behind.
Matt Wickenheiser | BDN
Oyster growers Bill Mook (left) and Andy Stevenson flip floats containing oyster nets on the Damariscotta River, as John Mitchell looks on from behind. Buy Photo
Jeff &quotSmokey" McKeen (left) and Carter Newell, partners in Pemaquid Oyster, unload oysters they've harvested using a small dragger on the Oyster Girl.
Matt Wickenheiser | BDN
Jeff "Smokey" McKeen (left) and Carter Newell, partners in Pemaquid Oyster, unload oysters they've harvested using a small dragger on the Oyster Girl. Buy Photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Demand for Maine oysters is growing, but regulations on the cold-weather storage of the delicacy prevent some aquaculturists from accessing their stock during winter, depressing the supply.

Until the last few years, oyster farmers sold only about nine months out of the year, said Bill Mook, an aquaculturist on the Damariscotta River. But now, with demand rising, Mook and other harvesters want to sell year-round.

Oysters grow best in the warm, upstream locations on Maine’s oceanic rivers such as the Damariscotta or the Bagaduce. In the spring and summer, temperatures there can reach 60 degrees, optimal growing conditions for the American oyster.

But cold winter temperatures often cause ice at the river’s surface, making it difficult for harvesters to access their stocks. In a perfect world, Mook said, farmers could simply move the stock downstream, closer to the open ocean, where temperatures vary far less, for winter storage. It’s still too cold for the oysters to grow, but at least farmers could easily get to their stocks.

Last year, Mook obtained a nonrenewable experimental license to do just that. But if he wants to keep weighing anchor in warmer waters, the state says he will need to get another standard aquaculture lease, just like he did for his growing site upriver.

With two years left on his experimental license, Mook says he will have to start the lease application process now if he doesn’t want to miss a winter. The state says a standard lease application can take up to 14 months to process, but Mook said it’s more like two years.

Besides, Mook argues that he shouldn’t have to do that, saying his winter site is only used for “wet storage,” a permitted activity for licensed shellfish dealers that the Department of Marine Resources defines, basically, as the temporary storage of shellstock in natural bodies of water.

At issue is whether his winter activity is aquaculture or not.

Relevant state law defines “aquaculture” as any activity that involves the “affirmative action of the lessee to improve the growth rate or quality of the marine organism.” Growing oysters from seed in a hatchery then placing them in optimal growing conditions meets that description, Mook says — storing those same oysters downriver does not.

“In the winter, they’re not growing,” he said. “You’re not culturing them. When you move them downriver, the only thing you’re doing is making them available. You’re not improving them at all.”

Rep. Mick Devin, a Newcastle Democrat and marine biologist at the University of Maine lab in Walpole, has submitted a bill aimed at streamlining or fast-tracking the wet storage permit application process, while still retaining some level of public input.

The bill’s language isn’t drafted yet, but the goal is to allow farmers like Mook to more easily access oyster stocks in the winter, thus improving the competitiveness of the fishery. Devin said his bill would make a huge difference for oyster farmers in Maine, many of whom operate on the Damariscotta.

The Department of Marine Resources won’t offer a position on Devin’s bill until the final draft is available, said spokesman Jeff Nichols on Thursday.

Oyster landings in the state peaked at 5 million pounds in 1990, a number that now seems preposterously high. In the 2000s and 2010s, landings have leveled off to around 700,000 pounds, though there’s still some variation from year to year.

But demand continues to grow, pushing the price higher each year. In 2012, oysters averaged $2.36 per pound, according to DMR data. That’s the highest price Maine oysters have ever fetched — despite a slump in landings that year, likely caused by the deadly MSX disease that struck oyster stocks in 2011.

“Even through the recession, oyster consumption has increased,” Devin said. He and Mook both chalk up the increased demand to the ascendant “foodie” culture, which has nearly gone mainstream in recent years. “In order to compete with other states, our oyster growers have to sell year-round,” he said.

While he hopes to streamline the process for wet storage — and ensure that’s how winter activity like Mook’s is treated — Devin said he doesn’t want the state to simply rubberstamp every application.

“Although we’re trying to make this easier for a small businessman, they’re still utilizing a public resource,” he said. “As a result of that, I believe there has to be a public comment.”

Devin said he’s more concerned about potential conflicts of interest with other fisheries — lobstermen and scallop draggers that still work in the winter — than he is with riparian landowners who may not like the sight of oyster nets or additional working boats.

Mook agreed that some public input would be necessary, but said he thinks the issue is as straightforward as could be. He even echoed Gov. Paul LePage’s words about making the state as business friendly as possible.

“It’s really a common sense proposal,” he said. “It’s a classic example of cutting out unnecessary red tape.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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