By PATRICK WHITTLE, Associated Press
BRUNSWICK, Maine (AP) — Maine is producing more oysters than ever due to the growing number of shellfish farms that have started off its coast in recent years.
The state’s 2021 oyster harvest was the largest and most valuable in its history, according to recent data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The state’s shipment of oysters, the vast majority of which come from farms, rose more than 50% last year to more than 6 million pounds.
Maine’s growing oyster farming activity has made the state a bigger player in the national industry that farms the prized shellfish, which were valued at more than $187 million in 2020. The growth has also raised questions from the from members of other marine industries as to whether the oyster business is growing too fast.
Maine oysters were worth more than $10 million on the docks last year, a decade after they were worth less than $1.3 million. They are now the fourth most valuable marine resource in the state, where lobster is still by far the most important seafood.
The presence of more farms has drawn criticism from some lobster fishermen, who fear losing access to productive fishing grounds. The state needs a comprehensive plan for the future of shellfish farming or it will lose its coast, said Crystal Canney, executive director of the Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation.
“We’re seeing people treat this like a Wild West gold rush, and that’s irresponsible,” she said.
On the other hand, the growth of oysters is great news for a state trying to diversify maritime industries, said Dan Devereaux, one of the owners of Mere Point Oyster Company in Brunswick.
“As Mainers, we take advantage of the fact that we’re here and seafood is so coveted out of state,” he said.
The growth of Maine oysters is occurring at a time when the national oyster industry is diversifying. A decade ago, about 60% of the value of American oysters came from Washington and Louisiana, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Now those states account for 27% of the value, and industries have grown in states like Texas, Virginia, Massachusetts and California, according to NOAA data.
Maine’s harvest was less than 1% of the country’s oyster value in 2011 and it was 3% in 2020. Oyster farms, which typically raise oysters in cages in coastal waters, have grown in Maine at that time. There were less than 600 acres of shellfish farm leases in Maine in 2010 and there are now about 1,000 acres, according to state records.
The state remains a relatively small producer in the national oyster industry, but Maine oysters tend to be more valuable than those elsewhere, said Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association. Maine oyster farmers are typically paid 10 to 15 percent more than those in other states, he said.
“The demand for Maine oysters is incredibly strong, and has been for about 10 years, but it seems to be getting stronger and stronger,” Belle said.
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