2018-01-05 / Front Page

Fishermen want to grow oysters in Spurwink River

By Michael Kelley
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH – Two Scarborough residents and commercial fishermen are teaming up to see if a section of the Spurwink River between Higgins Beach in Scarborough and Sprague Corporation’s Ram Island Farm in Cape Elizabeth is prime for the commercial growing of oysters.

Matthew Hassler of Mayflower Drive and Robert Willette of Track View Drive, both of Scarborough, applied to the Maine Department of Marine Resources for a three-year experimental aquaculture lease to grow and sell American/ Eastern oysters in a 2.77-acre section of the river close to the banks on the Cape Elizabeth side of the river.

According to Hassler and Willette’s application, the purpose of the effort “is to determine the feasibility of growing oysters in this area to allow us to make the decision of if we want to apply for a 10-year standard lease at this location to commercially farm oysters.”

“It’s essentially the first step (in the process)” said Cindy Burke, a paralegal assistant with the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ aquaculture program.

Hassler said both he and Willette have commercial licenses to clam the Spurwink River and wanted to see if the river would be support oyster harvesting.

“We are attracted to the Spurwink. There is currently no aquaculture leases there. There are a lot of nutrients in it and the clams grow well there. We are hoping it will grow oysters well too,” said Hassler, who has had a commercial license in Scarborough for five years.

The proposal calls for the growing of 600,000 oysters in suspended oyster bags and floating and submerged oyster cages. According to the application, “all oysters harvested from the site between May 1 and Nov. 30 will be sold directly to Moody’s Seafood,” a seafood retailer and wholesaler in Harpswell.

“We’d only have gear in the water in the warmer months. The oysters don’t grow in the winter. In the winter, we are concerned about ice coming down the river and ruining the equipment, so the equipment would be moved to another lease site in a different location or put in a refrigerator,” Hassler said.

The gear, he said, would be pulled out of the water in late fall and put back in by spring.

This would be the first commercial use on this part of the river, although the area is popular for kayakers, canoers, paddle boarders and recreational fishermen. Commercial clam diggers harvest near the location, but not within the anticipated oyster harvesting boundaries.

In their application, Hassler and Willette indicate, “the site is far enough up the river that we don’t expect anyone to be going up as far as the proposed lease site in larger boats. The river is hazardous and shallow even at high tides.” That, however, doesn’t stop larger boats from navigating that section of river, which they still would be able to do, even with the oyster harvesting lease site operating. Hassler and Willette have offered to mark a navigable path through the site with buoys, since the lease will not restrict anyone from accessing the proposed site. The path would change depending on where the gear is.

There is “abundant” plant and animal life at the site, including stripped bass, mackerel, bait fish, clams, mussels, crabs, oysters, waterfowl, wading birds, migratory birds, mallards and American black duck.

“We believe that this site will have minimal environmental impact,” Hassler and Willette wrote. “The river is very healthy right now as there are currently all different types of shellfish growing throughout the river.”

A public comment period for the application will close later this month. Comments or public hearing requests are due to aquaculture administrator at the Department of Marine Resources at 21 State House Station in Augusta by Jan. 23, 2018. Correspondence can also be emailed to both amanda.ellis@ maine.gov or cindy.l.burke@maine.gov. A public hearing will be held, Burke said, if there is a request to do so by at least five commenters.

Burke said after the public comment period, Department of Marine Resources biologists will do a site dive to examine the area to record what sort of plants and animals can be found, if the site is appropriate for such a use and determine how the site is used by other boaters. She said site dives are not done through the winter unless “there is a pressing matter.” They typically start back up again in late March or early April.

Burke said it is tough to say when the site visit for Hassler and Willette will take place.

“Right now we have gotten slammed by a lot of applications. I can’t say when the site report visit would be, but I am anticipating not before the end of spring/beginning of June,” she said.

A public hearing, if requested, would be held after the site visit.

Several things are taken into account in deciding whether to issue the experimental agriculture lease, including how the proposed use impacts ingress and egress, navigation or fishing or other uses in the area. The use also cannot “unreasonably interfere with significant wildlife or marine habitat or interfere “with public use or enjoyment within 1,000 feet of a federal, state or local beach, park or dock.”

“We are very excited to get going. We’d like to get gear in the water as soon as possible to allow us to start learning and figuring out if that location makes sense,” Hassler said.

If successful in getting an experimental aquaculture lease, Hassler and Willette will join several other companies that are cultivating oysters from Scarborough waters, including Abigail Carroll’s Nonesuch River Oyster LLC and Nate Perry’s Pine Point Oyster Company.

According to the Department of Marine Resources, although aquaculture has been part of Maine’s marine heritage since the 1800s, the first aquaculture lease was awarded in 1973 to Ed Myers to cultivate blue mussels and salmonids, a type of fish that includes salmon and trout, in the Damariscotta River. The endeavor proved to be successful in growing mussels and by the 1980s, many were following in his footsteps. Today, mussel farming is done all across the coast of Maine and clams, scallops, urchins and oysters are cultivated to a smaller degree throughout the state as well.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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