For the past three months, groups of citizens in Damariscotta and Blue Hill have been learning more than they ever thought they would want to know about oyster aquaculture. Taught by Chris Davis, a teacher at University of Maine at Orono and co-owner of Pemaquid Oyster, they’ve covered topics including shellfish biology, shellfish culture and husbandry, predators and diseases of shellfish, environmental impacts of shellfish aquaculture, harmful algal blooms and regulations covering shellfish management and aquaculture.

These people are part of the Oyster Gardening Project, conceived by Dana Morse, Extension Associate with the Maine Sea Grant Program and UMaine Cooperative Extension. The experimental program is teaching people who previously had no training in aquaculture how to raise oysters for their own consumption. (It is not intended for people interested in commercial oyster farming, who can take the Shellfish Culture Program provided by Maine Aquaculture Training Institute, where Davis also teaches.)

Morse says he got the idea for the program after learning from Davis about oyster gardening organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. There, citizens took care of oysters until they were large enough to be set out in the bay to help restore the bay’s depleted stock.

“Along the way, they found out that people became really excited about the project and were educated about a variety of things,” Morse said. He wondered if Maine Sea Grant, whose primary focus is marine education, could establish citizen oyster gardens in Maine as a way to reach out to waterfront homeowners and other interested citizens. “When you start raising live animals, you become educated about so many things,” he said, “water chemistry, shellfish biology, multiple use of natural resources, coastal ecology, shellfish management by the DMR and public health.”

Once the idea had jelled, Morse immediately asked Davis if he would teach the classes. “In my mind, Chris is ideal,” he said. “He brings so many things to the project: teaching experience and academic and industry credentials. He already had a good deal of the material we needed for the resource book.” (This is a four-inch loose-leaf binder packed with everything any participant would ever need to know about shellfish aquaculture, including up-to-date research and technology.)

Funding for the program has been provided primarily by Maine Sea Grant, with additional funds from the Maine Aquaculture Innovation Center and the Maine Coastal Program of the State Planning Office. The Damariscotta River Association (DRA) provides space for meetings in that area; the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) for the Downeast group.

Mark DesMeules, director of the DRA, says his board of directors is entirely supportive of the project. “Shellfish aquaculture is an accepted and existing use of the river, and a significant economy in our town is built on it,” he said. “We have more aquaculture leases in the Damariscotta River than any other estuarine system in the state.” He explained that once lay people understand how critical clean water is to shellfish aquaculture, they will understand better what the aquaculture industry needs from the conservation community, needs that include the DRA focus on shore land conservation, protection of wetlands that help purify and maintain clean water in the river and a strong water quality monitoring program.

Morse says although MERI is contributing meeting space for the project, the organization’s board is still undecided if it will officially endorse it. Mike Herz, past president of the Sheepscot Valley Conservation Association and member of its board, says his group also does not officially support the project, but that he personally thinks it is a good idea and decided to join in. “I think our board sees it as the potential of the camel’s nose under the tent,” he said. “They don’t want to be party to promoting any commercial use of the river. My attitude is that we have enough problems in the environmental and land trust community because the majority of the members are from away. They’re perceived as closing options to people who have made a living off the land here for generations.”

Herz said he believes the gardening project will serve a valuable purpose in educating people about the positive role shellfish play in the health of the marine environment – that they remove pollutants from the water – and by generally raising citizens’ consciousness about the many factors that affect the health of the marine environment in general.

On April 26, the Damariscotta River Group tackled the complex issue of finding the best site for the gardens and obtaining a one-year Limited Purpose Aquaculture (LPA) license. A few people will work at individual lease sites; the remaining eight are divided into two groups that will raise their oysters in community gardens, one near the DRA’s Dodge Point dock and the other closer to town.

Davis explained the requirements for the limited purpose license, which is issued by the DMR for small experimental sites. The license is easier and faster to obtain than a three-year experimental aquaculture lease, but still includes rules covering source of seed, details about the site location, and no interference with safe navigation, fishing or riparian ingress and egress; notification of riparian property owners, site plans, description of gear, sufficient distance from essential habitat of endangered species and other requirements.

Not only do the gardeners have to consider DMR rules; Davis made it clear that it is necessary to find the best balance possible among numerous factors, which would determine the health of their oysters. They include the type of bottom at the site, water temperature and salinity, current velocity, ice conditions, water turbidity and food supply. He explained conditions that would increase fouling of the oyster bags by tunicates, mussels and barnacles, making it more difficult for the oysters, which filter the water to obtain food, to obtain sufficient nutrition for optimum growth. The gardeners will probably choose different sites for their oyster nurseries and grow out, Davis added, as optimal conditions are different for each.

Each participant will receive about 1,000 baby American oysters (Crassostrea virginica), large enough not to slip through the mesh of bags that will be suspended in the water. Once a week, owners will turn and clean the bags, and as the oysters grow, sort them according to size and divide them into two, then three or four bags. The oysters will overwinter in a dormant state on the river bottom or in a three-foot hole dug on land and be suspended again the following summer to resume growth. They should be ready for the table in three years.

Morse said there is no charge for the course, but participants will pay about $125 to $150 for seed, equipment and the LPA.

Ed Knapp, who is growing his oysters in one of the community gardens, retired to Maine with his wife in 2000. Both of them, he said, have been learning as much as possible about the Maine coast and its working waterfront. A mechanical engineer with no previous training in biology, he also participates as a volunteer in the Maine Coast Program’s Shore Stewards Program, the Damariscotta River Association and Maine Maritime Museum. He is enthusiastic about the oyster gardening project, saying, “I think it is as close as a general layman, particularly a retiree, can get to understanding the needs of Maine’s working waterfront, particularly commercial oyster growers.”

Like everyone else in the program, Knapp looks forward to the day he can harvest his coveted Damariscotta River oysters and enjoy them on the half shell with friends. “At one time,” he explains, “I raised grapes and produced about a hundred gallons of wine a year. It’s amazing how many people enjoy drinking other people’s wine when it’s free.” He suspects it will be the same with his oysters.