The demand for Maine oysters runs high during the holiday season — served raw at cocktail parties or chopped into turkey stuffing, whatever the recipe, the festivities translate into brisk business for oyster farmers.

Brisk indeed — it’s cold this time of year. Winter harvesting depends not only on the seasonal hazards of differing sites, but each oyster farmer’s preferred technique for harvesting his or her crop during inclement weather. Working safely in frigid weather and keeping an easily perishable crop safe from the rough hazards of below-zero temperature can require some delicate balancing.

“We found that when the temperature falls below zero, when the oyster goes into dormancy, the oysters you take out of the water are fine but the ones left behind suffer up to a 50 percent mortality,” said Dick Clime, owner of Dodge Cove Marine Farm, known for its Pemaquids harvested on the Damariscotta River. “If sediment is stirred up [during a process called `dragging’] it can cover the oysters’ gill surfaces and asphyxiate them.”

The market wants oysters through Christmas, but oyster farmers wrestle with the desire to keep cash flowing through this holiday while remaining cautious, trying not to kill the precious shellfish remaining in the oyster bed. Barb Scully, owner of Glidden Point Oyster Company of Edgecomb, believes winter harvesting can be successful given appropriate care and caution. Scully argues that disturbing oysters by harvesting in the winter months won’t directly result in mortality. “Different harvesting methods may create some short-term shell damage to oysters remaining on the beds, leaving them more susceptible to predation or other environmental stressors for a short period of time,” she said, “but they may have negligible effect on overall survival, depending on the environmental conditions of the site.”

Still, when it comes to Scully’s Glidden Points, she believes that the December weather is too cold to safely drag her oysters off the river bottom, so through the first few weeks of January, she will hire divers to collect her underwater delicacies. “One of the many reasons I no longer do year-round oyster farming,” explains Scully, “is that once I had kids, I needed to come home alive.”

The demand for Maine oysters has increased dramatically over the past several years, according to Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Acquaculture Association, based in Hallowell. Studies commissioned by Maine Gov. John Baldacci, paid for by the Aquaculture Innovation Center of the University of Maine, tallied 486 acres of shellfish leases in 2003, while in 2005, the number increased to 654 leases. “While that number does include some clams and mussels,” notes Bell, “most of the increase has been in Maine oysters.

“We are the preeminent oyster in the marketplace because of our quality,” he continues. “Maine oysters are grown in cold weather, slowly, increasing the level of glycogen [an oyster’s natural reaction to the cold], making them particularly sweet.”

Furthermore, Belle notices a significant trend in exactly who’s getting into the oyster business: “People squeezed out of a fishery because of permit issues or reduction of days at sea, or guys without enough [lobster] trap tags to make a living are beginning to do some oyster farming on the side.”

Like many Maine oyster farmers, Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm in Walpole sees a bit of a drop in sales after Labor Day that continues through October. Then market requests increase substantially from Thanksgiving through Christmas – “and in the last two years this demand has gone up about 20 percent or so.”

Mook strives to get his equipment out of the water before the winter ice hits. “Dealing with chipping ice off the boat and running the risk of killing the oysters when it drops to the 30s is not something you can pay people to do,” comments Mook. “I’d have to safely drive machinery onto thick ice to consider harvesting through ice.”

Cutting through thick ice doesn’t faze Jim Hennessey, proprietor of Winter Point Oysters. With hearty determination, in the cruel month of February, he’s been known to cut thick blocks of ice to facilitate harvesting oysters on his site — a 13.5 acre strip of tidal water in the New Meadows River.

Adam Campbell, owner of North Haven Oyster Company, can be equally determined: “If the ice isn’t too thick we can dive into the pond, or sometimes we’ll cut a hole in the ice and use hand tongs. But once the ice gets two feet thick, that pretty much puts us out of business until spring thaw.”

Meanwhile, Chris Davis of Pemaquid Oyster Company found a highly successful way of keeping his supply of oysters flowing through the cold winter months. While he farms into January as long as the Damariscotta River is ice free, he tries to keep some oysters alive and submerged in a raft in Clark’s Cove. “We use a raft system, holding the oyster in submerged cages under the raft,” explains Davis. “This enhances the quality of our oysters as they purge grit or sand.”

When the Maine oyster market picks up in February, Davis pulls these oysters out of the water, already tagged, thereby streamlining the process; this oyster farmer has long been a Maine certified shipper. In less than two minutes this precious cargo is transferred to insulated containers in trucks heading for the airport, only to be whisked off and served live within hours at white-linen restaurants all across the country.