Thomas Henninger poses with a batch of Eastern American oysters at his Yarmouth home. The farmer has been producing the delicacies for the past five years. Credit: Sean Murphy, Spectrum News Service

A new initiative from the Maine Aquaculture Association is aiming to bolster the farmed-raised oyster industry both locally and nationwide.

“Oysters are getting more and more popular,” said Thomas Henninger of Yarmouth-based Madeleine Point Oyster Farms. “People are learning how to eat them.”

The initiative, which the association calls the Maine Oyster Trail, works in a similar fashion to a wine-tasting or craft-beer tasting tour. A website has been set up to educate visitors about the farmers and the restaurants that make up Maine’s oyster industry. The site includes a detailed trail map that encourages visitors to plan an oyster-tasting trip along Maine’s coast.

“It’s kind of fun,” said Afton Vigue, the association’s outreach and development specialist. “It incentivizes people to get out.”

A basket of cultivated oysters from Madeleine Point Oyster Farms. Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Henninger

Vigue said the site was originally launched in 2017 through the federal Sea Grant program, but was little more than a poorly updated educational resource. When the pandemic hit in March of last year, she said, the association’s members noticed a drop-off in business as restaurants temporarily closed.

“Basically overnight, they had to pivot,” she said.

The struggles of the pandemic led the association to relaunch its site this summer. The goal, Vigue said, was to model it after the Maine Beer Trail — a site maintained by the Maine Brewers’ Guild to promote craft breweries. Vigue said the oyster trail encourages visitors to check in when they visit oyster-related locations, and win prizes based on how many farms or restaurants they visit.

The Maine Oyster Trail website appears to be working. Through early August, Vigue said the site had been viewed over 10,000 times and more than 800 people have registered for an “Oyster Passport,” the online account that allows users to track and log their visits.

“People are checking in and using it, which is really awesome,” she said.

Over 75 businesses make up destinations on the trail. Vigue said that any Maine farm-raised oyster business is welcome to participate.

Henninger signed his Yarmouth-based farm up for the trail after learning about the initiative through a class on aquaculture through the Sea Grant program. His farm was added in early August and he now offers regular tours of his five-acre facility. Thanks to the trail, Henninger said he’s fully booked for tours through the end of this month.

“Once we hooked up with the oyster trail? Boom! I’ve been getting calls every day,” he said. “It’s just exploded.”

The Connecticut native has been interested in oysters since he worked on an oyster-fishing vessel in Long Island Sound when he was 11. He started farming in Maine five years ago after he saw an oyster cage in Southwest Harbor on a sailing trip up the Maine coast and got inspired. When he started, Henninger had only had 400 square feet of area to farm, but he has since parlayed that into a business that produces 200,000 Eastern American oysters a year.

“It really worked quite well,” he said.

Environmental sustainability is key for Henninger. The vessel he worked on in his youth dragged a trawl line along the ocean floor, damaging sea beds and habitats. Here, he said, his cages are less than five feet below the waterline, and the oysters, being filter feeders, actually clean the water. They remove excess nitrogen and phosphorus, he said, which is the primary cause of poisonous algal blooms.

“My business isn’t ecologically sustainable,” he said. “My business is ecologically restorative. It goes a step further.”

Last summer, when restaurants started getting innovative and offering more outdoor dining, Henninger said, interest in his oysters took off.

“That really, really gave us a boost,” he said.

Ryan Brown, oyster program manager and marketing and creative associate at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, said his raw bar is one of the restaurants playing it safe amid ongoing pandemic concerns and serving diners exclusively outside. He agreed with Henninger that having outdoor seating encourages people to buy and eat oysters.

“I think it’s just kind of a preference for how you enjoy the oysters,” he said.

Eventide is on the oyster trail, too. Brown couldn’t cite data, but said he believed the restaurant is doing about as well as it did before the pandemic. While he credits outdoor seating as part of the reason, he also credits the trail with giving patronage a boost. He agreed with Henninger that oysters are growing in popularity and that Maine oyster farmers are poised to take advantage of that.

“It seems like we’re in the golden era of Maine aquaculture here,” he said.

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