December 17, 2018
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Mainers use chainsaws to harvest oysters in the bitter cold

BRUNSWICK, Maine — When temperatures plummeted below zero in late December, the oyster farmers of Mere Point Oyster Company vowed not to let eight to 10 inches of ice in Mere Point Bay prevent them from harvesting to keep their winter market satisfied.

“The bay froze relatively quickly during that cold snap, and by just after Christmas it was frozen pretty solid,” said Dan Devereaux, who with Doug Niven owns the two-year-old Mere Point Oyster Company.

But with customers including The Shop and Island Creek in Portland clamoring for oysters — and a coveted spot at the Flavors of Freeport next month — Niven and Devereaux employed a bit of Maine ingenuity to pull up the oyster cages.

Devereaux and Niven, along with Devereaux’s two sons, headed out on the ice the second week of January, and returned — thanks to a chainsaw and a lot of lifting — with enough oysters to fulfill all those orders.

Clam harvesters have used chainsaws before to reach the mudflats, and in his role as Brunswick’s marine resources officer, Devereaux has used them to help sample water for testing.

But that ice is typically along the shoreline. Out at the oyster cages, the bay is probably 20 feet deep.

“It was frozen pretty solid in terms of being as comfortable as a person can be while walking on sea ice,” Devereaux said. “It’s an interesting balance. You have to be really careful and have experience.”

With Niven documenting the operation, and his two sons on hand to haul the oyster cages out and drag the bags of oysters to the shore, Devereaux applied vegetable oil to his chainsaw — in an attempt to keep the salt water from corroding it — and cut into the ice.

The oyster cages were sunk deep enough that they weren’t embedded in the ice but were trapped beneath it, he said. An inventory showed they hadn’t lost many oysters due to the ice.

For two longtime Mainers figuring things out as they go, getting those oysters to market as promised, despite a January freeze, was huge.

“We’re just starting to build up our markets now, and to be able to provide those oysters through the winter is an advantage for us,” Devereaux said.

Mere Point oysters are grown in an “ecologically significant” area where other shellfish had declined, Devereaux said. “Part of our thought process is we’re going to put filter-feeding shellfish back into the water column to help the area remain ecologically stable in terms of the marine ecosystem.”

After Devereaux cut around a cage, his sons hauled the ice-covered contraption up and out of the water, then dragged the bags of oysters to shore.

Devereaux said they’d return within the next week to re-submerge the remaining oysters.

Meanwhile, the company continues to work on acquiring permits and licenses to deal oysters wholesale, and apply for permits for a cold storage and wholesale facility at the Mere Point Road headquarters.

“You can certainly expect Mere Point oysters to hit the market at a larger scale probably this summer,” he said.

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Correction: An earlier version of this report listed an incorrect name for the Flavors of Freeport event.


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