HARPSWELL, Maine — Two years ago, Dave Hunter floated 200,000 tiny seed oysters in 4-millimeter mesh bags off Snow Island in Quahog Bay.

A full-time Brunswick firefighter, Hunter also worked as caretaker for the island, which had just been purchased by Patrick and Mary Scanlan — and Pat Scanlan wanted to dig some clams.

“Just a few clams out front, but he couldn’t because the bay would be closed each summer because boats would come in [and degrade the water],” Hunter said. “He said, ‘what do we do?’”

One mid-May afternoon, Hunter sped across the calm waters of Quahog Bay and around behind Snow Island before slowing his boat and hauling up a mesh bag full of those same oysters, now about 2½ inches long.

“A ‘cocktail’ might be a two-chew,” he said, pointing to a smaller oyster. “A ‘select’ might be a four-chew.”

Hunter scrubbed them with a brush, then shucked them and passed them around the salty-sweet oysters.

Since that first year, when Scanlan established the Quahog Bay Conservancy and began cleaning up the bay, about 70,000 of the original 200,000 Snow Island Oysters have been sold and shipped as far away as Chicago and Texas. Last year the oyster farmers started another 100,000 seed, and plan to start another 100,000 in July.

From ink to oysters

A couple of peninsulas south, at the tip of Mere Point, about 6,000 of Doug Niven’s oysters also are flourishing in Casco Bay’s cold, salty water.

A newspaperman by trade — he sold his family’s local newspaper, The Times Record, in 2008 — Niven has lobstered and dug clams for personal use his whole life. When he joined the town’s Coastal Waters Committee, he started talking oysters with Brunswick’s Marine Resources Officer Dan Devereaux, and in 2015 set out one bag of 9-millimeter seed oysters off his dock.

Devereaux recently organized a multi-species intertidal shellfish farming project for the town of Brunswick, filling “flip bags” with oysters after learning of the technique in Seattle.

That first summer, Niven watched patiently as the oysters grew. Last summer, he harvested the first of that crop and planted another couple thousand.

This year, with the help of his two sons and Devereaux’s two sons, Niven will tend Mere Point Oysters at several sites around the point.

Niven and Devereaux bounce ideas and plans off each other, and Niven spent the winter researching and building an oyster sorter/tumbler that Devereaux calls “The Nivenator.” He’s also built an oven to allow him to create his own oyster bags, builds his own oyster cages and has developed various methods to flip the cages in order to cleanse them of algae build-up.

This summer, he’ll pay his sons to build the cages and bags and tend the oysters.

An untapped resource

Mere Point and Snow Island are just two of many oyster farms bubbling up in the cold, clear water of Casco Bay. Oyster farming in the area isn’t new — Eric Horne and Valy Steverlynck have operated Flying Point Oysters from Freeport for nearly two decades, assuming the farm from Horne’s father — but most of Maine’s oysters have come from the Damariscotta River, though they often finish their growth in the colder mouth of the river because exposure to the cold improves the taste.

Casco Bay has been a largely untapped resource, according to consultant Darcie Couture of Fair Winds Inc. — not because conditions are less favorable but because between softshell clams and lobsters, “people just weren’t focusing on it.”

But softshell clams have been hard hit in the past few years, between the invasion of European green crabs, milky ribbon worms — even territory disputes with marine worm harvesters.

“Of all of the shellfish, softshell clams have taken the hardest hit,” Couture said.

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, as softshell clam landings have declined over the past five years, down from 11.1 million pounds a year to 7.3 million pounds in 2016, the oyster harvest has more than doubled.

In 2012, 700,807 pounds of Maine oysters yielded $1.65 million, according to the DMR. In 2016 2.1 million pounds of Maine oysters yielded more than $5 million.

Environmental benefits

Oysters offer a number of advantages — in particular their ability to replenish the ecosystem instead of depleting it. Adult oysters will filter about 50 gallons of water per day, removing nitrogen and excess nutrients that wash into the bay with pollutants and can cause algae blooms.

They’re also resilient, typically grown in protective bags and/or cages, with heavy shells that are much less susceptible than clam shells to predators like green crabs and milky ribbon worms. Oysters are probably the most resistant to red tide, according to Couture, who for seven years managed the DMR’s statewide biotoxin program, including two years when the state was twice declared a “federal disaster” area because of red tide.

Couture, who works as a consultant for Mere Point Oysters and the Quahog Bay Conservancy, said Casco Bay provides “just the right cold and salty water” for oysters to thrive.

Oysters don’t yield a profit for the first year or two, which Couture said might deter some wild shellfish harvesters who have to pay their bills, but she said many have found a way to get a farm going with a relatively small investment and while keeping their day job.

With a limited purpose aquaculture site such as those Niven and Hunter farm on, which cost $50 each, and 5,000 to 10,000 oyster seeds, “a couple thousand is all you would need to get started. And within 18 to 24 months, you’d be able to bring your first small batch to market.”

By the time those seeds were ready to harvest, Casco Bay oysters may be fetching a hefty price. Ray Trombley, a former clammer who operates Casco Bay Shellfish, buys oysters from local farmers and sells them to dealers in Massachusetts.

“I was on the phone last week with Cape Cod Shellfish, and he said, ‘Did you ever hear of Snow Island Oysters?’” Trombley said Thursday. “I said I had. He said, ‘Send down a bag,’ so I sent one down yesterday.”

Trombley hasn’t heard back yet, but he’s confident the review will be like others.

“They sell a lot of oysters there — millions of oysters … from all over the place. New Jersey, Maryland. They’re not like Maine oysters — nice, clean, deep-dish oysters. They’re saltier, and they look good on the plate.”

My guess is we will start to see more Casco Bay Oysters,” Couture said. “It’s exciting to see this many oysters being produced in Maine.”