Aquaculture on the New Meadows River
This story was first published in The Harpswell Anchor – September 2019.
Although the Damariscotta River has long since been recognized as the heart of Maine’s oyster industry, the New Meadows River is on its way to making a name for itself. Now the home of fifteen oyster farms, spanning Harpswell, Phippsburg, West Bath, and Brunswick, the farmers on the New Meadows River are churning out oysters like it’s their job.
In the face of a rapidly changing marine economy, where warming waters are pushing the lobster resource farther north, Holbrook Community Foundation, a local nonprofit organization based in Cundy’s Harbor, has made it their mission to promote an understanding and increase awareness of the changing working waterfront, one conversation at a time.
In 2017, Holbrook Community Foundation supported Beyond the Bow: A Fisheries Needs Assessment of Harpswell with Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, which surveyed the needs of fishermen and local fishing communities; the results of the study determined that there was a need for increased public access to information about the local fishing community. As a result of these findings, HCF launched an endeavor to educate the public about the ecological and economic benefits of aquaculture in Casco Bay, specifically the New Meadows River, while finding new ways to incorporate this sector into traditional fisheries.
“Seeing new developments on the water can be scary if people are unaware of what’s going on around them. With increased awareness, I hope that community members can become more comfortable with the equipment, appearance, and customs of the farms,” said Chris Burtis, founder of Ferda Farms on the New Meadows River.
Holbrook Community Foundation recently received a grant to sponsor Aquaculture in the New Meadows from the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, a Portland-based organization with the mission of conserving the ecological integrity of Casco Bay. Aquaculture in the New Meadows was designed to engage, inform, and educate the community about oyster aquaculture in Harpswell and consisted of three guided boat tours to farms on the New Meadows. The goal of this project was to build connections among landowners, municipal decision makers, and farmers to proactively build trust and improve relationships within communities that are affected by this evolving fishery.
“We hear a lot about aquaculture and its importance in providing a sustainable food source. Seldom do we actually get to see and understand the challenges and environmental issues facing this industry,” said HCF Board Member Joe Smith.
On Thursday, August 15, 2019, members of the local community toured oyster farms, where they learned about the process of cultivating, harvesting, and marketing oysters. Two of the tours were led by Captain Peter Mulholland of Seacoast Tours, who has twenty five years of experience developing marine educational programs. The third tour was led on sea kayaks by Registered Maine Guide Alicia Heyburn, who is actively involved with coastal conservation and creating connections between communities and the environment. Participants on these tours included state and local elected officials, HCF supporters, marine resource committee members, harbormasters, HCF board members, land trust representatives, community leaders, teachers, and local fishermen, who were given the opportunity to learn about oyster farming directly from the source.
“Aquaculture is a regulated use of public resources. The coastal waters of Maine are a busy place and there’s plenty to learn about. It’s valuable to get a firsthand look at an aquaculture farm because – like anything else – seeing it in person is usually better than only seeing a photo or video or a news story,” said Dana Morse of Iron Island Oysters on the New Meadows River.
Farms featured on the tours included: Iron Island Oysters, Ferda Farms, and Dingley Cove Oysters, all of which are located on the New Meadows River in Brunswick and Harpswell. Dana Morse started Iron Island Oysters in 2014 and, as a Marine Extension Associate for Maine Sea Grant, has provided guidance to local individuals starting their own oyster farms, including Peter Rand, who founded Dingley Cove Oysters in 2016, and Chris Burtis, who founded Ferda Farms in 2018. “One of the aspects I especially appreciated was learning from the folks getting started in this industry – their excitement and interest in working together. The aquaculturists we met on the tour [and on a larger farm on a separate occasion] embrace others doing the work and that ‘raises all boats,’” said Maine State Representative Jay McCreight, who attended the tours.
With the rapidly changing nature of the working waterfront, aquaculture promises to grow and evolve with the surrounding environmental and economic conditions. The market for oysters continues to expand as the demand for healthy, locally-sourced food increases. Oyster farms continue to materialize along the shores of Casco Bay as an accessible entrepreneurial endeavor with little environmental impact, except the positive effects of oysters which naturally purify and filter their surrounding waters.
“Aquaculture is an up-and-coming fishery in Maine and it is my hope that oysters become as beloved as lobsters and clams,” states Burtis.