SCARBOROUGH – At its next meeting, Feb. 6, the Scarborough Town Council is slated to vote on a contract that promises another evolution of the working waterfront at the newly renovated municipal pier at Pine Point.
If approved, the deal will allow Nonesuch Oysters to attach an 8-by-20-foot float at the end of the pier to serve as an incubator for spat, or baby oysters. From this nursery, the juvenile oysters will be transported for final growth to a 4.5-acre sea farm the company leases further up the Scarborough River, near the railroad bridge at Seavey’s Landing.
In addition to fees accessed on all users of the pier, Nonesuch also will pay $420 per year on April 1, a “fair estimate,” according to the contract, of electricity costs to run the “upweller” float’s pump system, which keeps water circulating among the spat.
“There was some discussion on whether we should charge anything in addition, but there’s really no impact, and thus no justification for additional cost,” said Town Manager Tom Hall last week. The contract vote was originally set for Jan. 16, until that night’s council meeting was called for snow.
“Basically, we want to be as supportive as we can for a local businessperson,” said Hall of the rent-free lease. “This business does not interfere at all with the local shellfish industry or with navigation, so it’s a wonderful complement for our working waterfront.”
On Monday, while preparing her boats for the coming season, Nonesuch founder Abigail Carroll joked that since starting her company in 2009, she’s discovered that life on a working waterfront is nothing if not work.
“You’ve got to really nurture these guys, when they pop, you’ve got to tend to them every day,” she said of the American Virginica and European Flat Belon oysters she cultivates in three-year cycles, from barely sized spat to 3-inch cocktail shells, before selling to a local wholesaler.
“There’s a very romantic notion people have of oyster farming until they actually do it for a few weeks. It’s hard, physical, dirty work,” said Carroll, adding, to make the point clear, “It’s a very dirty, dirty undertaking.”
A Maine native, Carroll admits to being an “accidental oyster farmer.” A self-described “urban rat” before launching into aquaculture, she earned a degree in French and Spanish from Barnard College and a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University. Until returning to Maine about five years ago, she spent more than a decade in Paris, France, writing and working in telecoms and various startup enterprises.
Based on that experience, she was asked to draft a business plan for someone else who dreamed of breaking into Maine’s $1.75 million oyster industry. But Carroll quickly went from planner to principal financer to sole proprietor.
“My money came in first and then I realized the other money wasn’t coming at all,” she said. “The other person has never officially been a part of the company. It’s always been me, which is funny because the one rule I had going in was I would not be the one going out on the water.”
These days, Carroll looks almost born to her knee-high waders, but admits, “I do get seasick.”
“My background in marketing and whatnot helped me in ways that might not have been available to someone who grew up in this industry, but, still, it took me a long time even to acclimate to being on the water,” she said, with a laugh.
About 72 percent of Maine’s oyster industry is centered on Damariscotta River near South Bristol, but Carroll says she picked Scarborough because of the dynamic tidal flow from Saco Bay to the town’s famous marshlands. Oysters are “filter feeders” that purportedly taste like their environment. Nonesuch oysters, says Carroll, have a “salty-sweet flavor with a delicate grassy undertone.”
“I think what is particular about the Scarborough taste is that, on the outgoing tide it’s bringing a lot of fresh water from the marsh,” said Carroll. “You get a nice, grassy flavor from the undertow which is really quite lovely. We’ve gotten some really nice raves about the flavor of our oysters.”
After her initial test with a small-scale license using juvenile oysters to see if she could successfully raise an oyster – it’s constant flipping of the mesh bags they’re raised in to dry out algae that forms on the wet side, and to root out invaders like starfish and crabs – Carroll scored a three-year experimental aquaculture license from the Department of Marine Resources in July 2011.
“Everybody says Maine is such a terrible place to do business, but coming from France I was amazed. I started looking into the business plan in November 2009 and by June 2010 I had oysters in the water and was starting sales,” said Carroll.
Since then, she built a land-based nursery near the Biddeford Pool Yacht Club, dealt with an invasive algae bloom there and learned to cope with attrition of her young oysters.
“I spend a lot of time putting out fires,” she said. “And aquaculture is just one apocalyptic problem after another. Yet somehow every time I think we’ve hit something I think is completely insurmountable we get through it, and often it’s been for the better.”
So far, Marine Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have signed off on Carroll’s proposal at Pine Point Pier, as have the town’s shellfish and harbor committees.
Carroll will keep a part of her nursery in Biddeford, but wanted to move to Pine Point in part because a floating upweller moves more water at a lower cost, because it’s in the water instead of on land. Being at the pier also brings her nursery operations closer to the sea farm, where she’ll have as many as eight employees during the summer.
But another factor, says Carroll, is the reception she’s received in Scarborough.
“There’s been just a great, warm welcome,” said Carroll, pointing to everything from a kind word to help with a stalled boat motor. “I’m really grateful for the support I’ve got. People there have been so nice to us. I really feel like most people down there have my back.
“Having the oysters here has been a really positive thing for the river,” said Scarborough’s harbor master, Dave Corbeau. “I think a lot of us are looking forward to getting this new program going.”
Carroll has tried to give back by working with the University of New England on oyster breeding and joining the Biddeford Conservation Commission. She is reserving one chamber of her new floating upweller to help local clammers reseed the area.
“A small business needs to make a profit, of course, but even more importantly, I think, it needs to be a part of the community,” she said.
Even through Nonesuch Oysters has been in the red since Day 1, and doesn’t look to achieve positive cash flow for the first time until this fall, Carroll says her experience to date has her expecting the best.
“I will say, one way I’ve changed since starting this, I have more faith that things will work out than I used to,” she said.