With no oysters to sell, smaller harvesters are feeling the financial pinch when it comes to paying bills and making payroll. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Ask Dave Hunter of Snow Island Oysters, grown in Quahog Bay, and he’ll tell you: the perfect oyster is 2 ½ to 3 inches long. That’s the length oyster dealers and customers are looking for, he said Monday.

“It’s, ‘Chew, chew, swallow,’” Hunter said.

“I usually tell the guys 2 ½ to 3 ½,” Ray Trombley, who buys American oysters at Casco Bay Shellfish in Brunswick, said Tuesday. “They’re not worth as much if they get any bigger. As a buyer, I like that size, and so does the market I sell to, and they sell to restaurants in Portland.”

But as of June 5, more than 200 of Maine’s smaller oyster farmers were temporarily out of business after PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) — a biotoxin known as red tide — was detected off Basin Point in Harpswell, the islands in Middle Bay, and Christmas Cove Landing in South Bristol, according to records from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

State officials closed areas to oyster harvesting near the Bristol peninsula and, approximately, from Phippsburg to Cape Elizabeth.

While larger harvesters, or leaseholders, can file with the state to allow weekly testing for biotoxins — and if the oysters are clean, they can harvest — smaller operations, or LPAs (limited purpose aquaculture sites), don’t have that option. According to DMR policy, LPA holders are not eligible for state testing or by Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, even if they pay for it themselves.

That means that, for now, their oysters continue to grow in Maine waters. Harvesters hope they don’t grow much beyond that perfect 2 ½ to 3 inches, fearing they begin to lose market value.

In the meantime, with no oysters to sell, smaller harvesters are feeling the financial pinch when it comes to paying bills and making payroll.

“We’re stuck without an income stream,” Dan Devereaux, co-owner of Mere Point Oyster Company in Brunswick, said recently. “It certainly impacts our operating plan. We would be willing to pay for additional testing.”

State policy

With approximately 141 active leases and some 500 LPAs (as of January), DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols said last week that “workload issues and staffing constraints” prevent the department from allowing LPA harvesters to contract with private labs for testing.

“DMR has to prioritize its limited resources and because the number of LPAs is far greater than the number of leases, restricting biotoxin testing under these [memorandums of understanding] to leaseholders is an administrative necessity,” he said.

But while smaller and younger, those approximately 500 LPA holders harvested 637,314 oysters last year, for a total value of $481,182, Nichols said — a far smaller figure than the nearly 12 million oysters harvested by leaseholders (total value just more than $8 million).

“Those people who have marketable oysters have to sit on them,” Hunter said. “The worry is if this closure sticks around too long, some of the stuff that’s marketable … it will be harder to get rid of it.”

Peter Rand holds an LPA on the New Meadows River in Harpswell, where he harvests Dingley Cove Oysters. Fortunately for him, his LPA is north of Long Island, and not subject to the red tide closure. But Rand is sympathetic to those who are affected.

I would love it if I were able to send a test off to Bigelow,” he said Monday.

But Rand doesn’t fault the DMR, noting the “slew” of LPA applications in the past few years.

The DMR issued 16 leases in 2007, 64 in 2014, and reached a high of 195 in 2017 before decreasing to 181 in 2018, according to the department website.

Still, Devereaux said Mere Point Oyster Co. would be more than willing to pay to have its oysters tested.

But Nichols said that’s not an option.

“And even with testing by a private lab, DMR still has to coordinate and administer all samples and test results which, given the volume of LPAs, would be impossible with our available resources,” he wrote in an email.

While the areas off Harpswell and South Bristol are closed to oysters, harvesters are able to dig clams because oysters are higher in the water column and more susceptible than clams to the biotoxin.

“A lot of the small LPAs are ready to be harvested,” Trombley said. “It’s really hurting the industry right now. There’s a high demand because of the season and my market in Portland is screaming for oysters.”